Forging the arts in the furnace of Great Britain

Cuts mean that private patrons are more valuable than ever

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Which British city has more miles of canal than Venice? The answer is Birmingham, whose waterways may not throng with gondoliers, but which is no cultural backwater. After all, the dapper conduits around Brindleyplace lead to The Mailbox, where the BBC records that cultural icon The Archers.

Birmingham's cultural landscape is inextricably linked to its people's financial acumen and philanthropic tendencies. We tend to forget the city was the home of industry before Manchester and Liverpool. And much of the profit made in Birmingham's prosperous jewellery and gun industry was invested in culture.

In the second half of the 18th century, enlightened Midlands men formed the Lunar Society, where industry, science and artistic achievement were celebrated in equal measure. One was Josiah Wedgwood. A passionate opponent of slavery, this Staffordshire citizen achieved a near-perfect synthesis of industry and art. The Cadburys, another great Quaker family like the Clarks (see Peter York's article, published today), invested in arts, crafts and education for their workers.

Lady Barber, née Martha Onions, daughter of a wealthy Worcestershire businessman and wife of a Birmingham solicitor and property developer, was the most prominent woman to emerge from this philanthropic heritage. A flamboyant woman with an eccentric streak, she left both families' fortunes to found the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. A wider audience will have an opportunity to experience her legacy when masterpieces including works by Poussin, Turner, Monet and Manet go on show at the National Gallery next month, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the institute.

Such philanthropy was not exclusive to Lady Barber. Led by Neville Chamberlain, a group of public-spirited citizens founded the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1920. With £1,250 initial funding from the local authority, the CBSO gave its first concert in the same year with the Midlands' proudest musical son Sir Edward Elgar. Even the grumpiest sceptic would have to admit the CBSO track record isn't bad for the provinces. It's a good bet that the current music director, Andris Nelsons will again succeed Sir Simon Rattle, who went from the CBSO to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, when Sir Simon leaves the German orchestra in 2018.

After 40 years of citizens' campaigning, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was founded in 1885 by a classic public-private partnership: £40,000 from the council, a £10,000 gift, and private donations paved ways to one of the world's most important Pre-Raphaelite collections.

Other flagship cultural institutions have adopted variations of this model; these aren't easy times for arts organisations facing funding cuts from national and local government. Now more than ever we need the entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit of latter-day Cadburys and Barbers to support the country's cultural heritage and to play a vital role in its future, because they recognise there's nothing optional about the arts.

Peter Luff is MP for Mid Worcestershire

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