New names written into the cultural landscape

First the Dorfman Theatre, now the Sackler Serpentine – patrons are filling the gap in arts funding
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The answer to Shakespeare's "What's in a name?", it seems, is everything. From Rome's Pantheon to London's cash-strapped suite of galleries and theatres, arts institutions have been offered up as tributes to benefactors throughout history. And the question of whether patrons should leave their names above these establishments' doors, as well as on a juicy cheque, divides opinion as fiercely as ever.

Last week the National Theatre announced that it was renaming its Cottesloe Theatre as the Dorfman Theatre after it received a £10m donation from the British entrepreneur Lloyd Dorfman. And yesterday, London's Serpentine Gallery said it was expanding into its Magazine Building – of equivalent size to the existing gallery – and would rename it the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, after an education charity, the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, financed the move. As Arts Council cuts of 6.9 per cent bite next year, arts institutions will look to the private sector as a necessity, not a choice.

"It seems to be a standard requirement these days that most listed institutions are ready to grant this opportunity," bemoaned the playwright Michael Frayn. "I suppose he [Dorfman] is no less entitled to the name of that theatre than Cottesloe.

"But I do think it is vastly better to name a theatre after someone who is involved in the tradition of making theatre, as happened with the West End's commercial theatres. I think that's better. I am very pleased that money has been given but it seems a bit sad that the name seems to be required as a quid pro quo for the money."

The National said that the decision to rename the theatre – originally christened after a former head of the Arts Council – was a mutual decision between Dorfman and the theatre. However, many benefactors are known to insist on theatres or galleries carrying their names in exchange for money.

"I always argue that giving to the arts guarantees immortality," said Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts & Business, an institution which aims to facilitate cooperation between the arts and the private sectors. "I am desperate for it to happen. Names like Wallace, Tate, Guggenheim: these are all people whose names will live forever."

As Classical history scholars will know, the inscription at the summit of Rome's Pantheon reads: "M.Agrippa.L.F.Cos.Tertium.Fecit." In short, it means "Agrippa made this". In fact, the Roman general Agrippa oversaw an earlier incarnation of the ancient temple. The one currently standing on the site was probably overseen by Emperor Hadrian around 150 years later.

These days, countless wings of galleries, museums and theatres are named and renamed in accordance with millionaires' generosity. There is the V&A's Sackler Centre and the Royal Academy's Jillian and Arthur M Sackler Wing (both named after the US entrepreneur and philanthropist), the National Gallery's 1991 Sainsbury Wing (the Sainsbury family donated £50m). The V&A has the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Galleries (named after the Australian magnate).

So is it in part vanity prompting this naming frenzy?

"There are as many trusts and foundations who don't seek recognition," said the National Theatre's executive director Nick Starr. "You're commemorating someone's gift, and it's a nice idea to have that publicly recognised. But the donors often would not suggest it until it was suggested to them. It seems like an entirely natural thing to do."

Redevelopment of the National will include refurbishment of what will become the Dorfman Theatre, a public backstage walkway and a new café. Starr insists: "This is a first for the National Theatre and it may well be the last. There is no way our Olivier Theatre could be called anything else for example."

He insisted that Cottesloe's descendants had been good-natured about the change. "We let it be known to the Cottesloe family that renaming was a possibility and they are delighted," Starr said. "The Dorfman name is one we are proud of and we are proud of his relationship with the theatre. He wanted to give a cornerstone gift and in recognition we said we'd like to name the theatre after him. It was mutual."

In July, some of Britain's most prominent philanthropists warned that private giving will not bridge the gap left by imminent cuts. The likes of John Ritblat, who has donated to the British Library and the Wallace Collection, and the art dealer Anthony D'Offay, warned that philanthropy must be an addition to state funding, not a substitute for it. Addressing the Government's zeal for the American arts funding model, they called for greater tax incentives to encourage donation.

Senior figures at the Serpentine are more muted about whether the gallery's announcement is a sign of things to come.

"Well, of course we are thrilled, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. "Timing is everything and we have to embrace it with both hands."

As for whether the arts must rely on private sponsorship to survive in something approaching their current state, she said: "It's too soon to tell. Everyone will be reviewing their portfolio, looking at their portfolio of income generation and expenditure. We are in a very good position indeed."

Such optimism was echoed by a spokesperson for Royal Parks, the owner of the Serpentine freehold. "We have been looking to see how we can support ourselves through self-generated income over the last five years and we've managed to double it from £7.5m to £15m over that time period, because our Government grant has been cut," said Mark Camley, the Royal Parks Chief Executive. "We need to focus on how we're going to supplement our income. Projects such as this help our baseline figures."

Such sponsorship doesn't come at any price. It is possible for a benefactor to be stripped of his brass plaques. Take the example of the Cuban-American investor Alberto Vilar. Two years ago his name was torn down from the Grand Tier of New York's Metropolitan Opera after he was convicted of fraud.

Britain's quieter philanthropists

* Roger De Haan

Founder of the Saga group, he established the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust in 1978 and is driving the redevelopment of Folkestone, where he has pledged £2m towards the creation of a new academy dedicated to the arts.

* Lord David Sainsbury

Businessman, politician and cousin of J Sainsbury president Lord John Sainsbury, he donates through the Gatsby Charitable Foundation rather than using his own name, and funds the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London.

* Simon Sainsbury

Another of the Sainsbury dynasty, Simon funds organisations such as the Georgian Society through his Monument Trust, established in 1965. Again, he refuses to use his own name when making endowments.

* Donald MacDonald

MacDonald is on the board of the National Trust for Scotland, and is also a governor of Edinburgh College of Art and a former member of the Council of the Edinburgh International Festival.

* Baron Norman Macfarlane

A low-profile member of the House of the Lords whose positions include membership of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and governor of Glasgow School of Art. In 2007, he received the Freedom of the City of Glasgow for his work fundraising for the renovation of the city's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.