David Lister: Hunt's approach would indeed make a change – for the worse

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The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt has declared: "If you said to me what is the one thing I could do as Culture Secretary that would make a real difference to the arts, I would say it would be to help foster an American-style culture of philanthropy to the arts and culture here in the UK."

The New York experience shows that the Hunt approach would indeed make a difference. It would put arts institutions in this country in the same danger that they are currently facing in America.

Institutions as celebrated as the Metropolitan Opera and leading Broadway theatres are finding that philanthropists get cold feet in a recession and company shareholders wonder why their money is going in large quantities to the arts. This has led to a 3.2 per cent fall in philanthropic giving in the US. Meanwhile, with no public funding, ticket prices go ever higher. We want more philanthropy in Britain. We do not want £100 theatre seats.

The lesson of the American model is that we must in the UK have a flourishing mixed economy for arts funding. Philanthropists don't want to be seen as a substitute for public funding. Also, private companies are becoming increasingly embarrassed at being accused of lavish spending on arts while making redundancies. And a group of leading philanthropists has recently written to the Prime Minister expressing concern at Mr Hunt's speech, adding that we must have a balanced cultural economy.

Mr Hunt, though, does not see an increase in philanthropy as merely boosting government arts funding. He intends to cut public funding of the arts by as much as 30 per cent, and clearly hopes that philanthropists – both individual donors and large businesses – will step in to fill the gap. In the current climate, it won't happen, despite Mr Hunt saying he will reward donors – especially non-doms! – more through the honours system (any honours for the rest of us who fund the arts through our income tax Mr Hunt?)

It's true that in the US they give 1.7 per cent of their income to charitable and cultural organisations, compared to just 0.7 per cent here in the UK. But there is a downside to reliance on private donations. If Mr Hunt banks all on philanthropy and cuts public funding of the arts too far, he will be remembered as the minister for museum closures and extortionate ticket prices.

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