Philip Hensher: If you've got it, give some of it away

How many Premier League footballers give regularly, substantially to institutions? Personal wealth, beyond a certain point, becomes of public concern
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The Independent Online

JG Graves was an important businessman in Sheffield in the first half of the 20th century. If you don't come from Sheffield, you won't have heard of him. If you do, his name will be familiar to you. From ordinary beginnings as a watchmaker, he established one of the very first British mail-order businesses.

He used his wealth for works of public improvement, giving substantial gifts to public art galleries in Sheffield, and the magnificent central library, as well as to the city's university. Some of the most handsome public parks in the city, too, were bought and donated by Graves, such as the lovely Ecclesall Woods, just round the corner from my parents, as it happens.

Graves died in 1945. Probably every major city in the country can cite some comparable figure in its history: somebody who made good and subsequently devoted some of their wealth to institutions of public improvement. The golden age of personal philanthropy, however, was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Graves, with his firm commitment to the visual arts, died just as his sort was apparently being rendered obsolete. When John Maynard Keynes founded the Arts Council in 1946, it was with the explicit intention that the state, from now on, should act as a sponsor and Maecenas towards artistic endeavour. In Attlee's Britain, was there any place for personal philanthropy?

Most of the pieties of the Attlee administration have long since been dismantled. But personal philanthropy towards the arts has never regained its previous position. If you believe many professionals, it is, in fact, in decline. The arts today face a potential funding catastrophe from three directions, we are told. Just as the Government reaches for the knife to cut central government funding, the recession means that paying audiences are on the wane, and even that the very wealthy are having to think twice about any possibility of making a donation.

The marvellous figure of Dame Vivien Duffield makes it clear that the last part of this analysis, at least, needn't be true. There are some very wealthy people who are still willing to make a donation. This week, Dame Vivien made donations of £8.2m to a range of cultural institutions, from the National Theatre and Tate Britain down to valuable local bodies such as the Holburne Museum in Bath and Kettle's Yard in Cambridge. Dame Vivien and her foundation, the Clore Foundation, have donated some £200m to good causes over the years. There will be a good deal of relief in those institutions, facing Arts Council cuts of 30 per cent over the next four years.

Astonishingly generous though Dame Vivien is, she was willing to raise the question of whether this large-scale philanthropy has a future. In her forthright way, she contrasted "the old philanthropists" with "a new generation of Indians and Russians and Arabs ... It's a different culture. There's not the same culture of philanthropy that the Jews have". Sir Nicholas Serota of Tate agreed, up to a point, saying that Indians were historically better at giving than Arabs. As for those Russian oligarchs currently throwing tens of millions at that hideous block of flats at the top end of Sloane Street, Sir Nicholas said tactfully that "they were new to it".

I don't know how accurate it is to analyse tendencies of giving in these national/racial terms. But there does seem to be a sharp difference between the very rich of the past and modern-day multi-millionaires. All those steel, coal and rag-trade tycoons had no sooner made their fortune than their thoughts started to turn to improvement, like Boffin in Our Mutual Friend reading "The Decline and Falling-Off of the Rooshian Empire". Soon afterwards, there would be libraries and university halls and museums with the tycoon's name on the front.

Probably in all of this, there was a combination of genuine selflessness and a harmless wish to perpetuate a name – Tate & Lyle might one day be sold and renamed, but the Tate Gallery will go on for ever. If we ask, however, where all the philanthropists of today are, there are only a few honourable souls whom it is easy to point out. This newspaper, a couple of years ago, mounted a brave list of Britain's most conspicuous philanthropists, citing 30 who regularly gave generously. But beyond that, there may be rather a wasteland. How many Premier League footballers give regularly, substantially, to institutions? How many hedge fund traders? It should be clearly understood, just as the 19th century understood, that personal wealth beyond a certain point becomes of public concern, and it is a person's duty to give some of it away to good causes.

The tradition of giving is much more firmly embedded in America these days, thanks to various tax benefits. The arrangement is sometimes criticised as, effectively, diverting public money to be spent in accordance with private whim. There is something in that. But there is a place where the arts can be funded and, in part, directed by those private whims. In fact, a rich patron who knows what he likes and directs his money accordingly can be a useful counterweight to the sort of more dutiful enthusiasms which public institutions have to live by. The dangerous situation would be one in which there are so few active philanthropists around that they are able to dictate terms and conditions around a gift. The more philanthropists there are, the more the institution has some power of choice. We need more philanthropists, not fewer.

People will argue for tax breaks, as they always will, but the best motive to encourage philanthropy ought to be simple shame. A person who can spend £5m on a house ought to be able to give £100,000 to a struggling cause. And if they don't? Well, we should all be clear in our minds how dishonourable and shameful that would be.

J G Graves would have been in no doubt.