Illustration by Joey Yu.

Private Philanthropy

New Zealand
Also available in:  Chinese

The United States has a long tradition of philanthropy. Every community knows that unless their citizens contribute, they simply will not have a hospital, library, art gallery or museum. People of quite modest means feel obligated to donate to charities of their choice. They feel the need to give back to society.

On the other hand, countries with British or European traditions have long histories of state or local administrations providing support for arts and culture. Philanthropy was largely the preserve of authorities, or the “super-rich,” such as the Medici or Sainsbury families.

Support for the arts from private citizens, on any scale, is a relatively recent development in many countries including my own, New Zealand. Previously, there was a general attitude that the state, the local council or the occasional wealthy person would support everything, whether a theater, orchestra, gallery or museum. One of the difficulties with this approach is the fact that there has been a huge boost in culture over the last 50 years, both in the creation of the arts and in the appetite for them, particularly in the field of contemporary visual art. One only has to look to the explosion of art fairs, biennials and other similar events in the last 20 to 30 years as evidence of this. However, the state alone cannot fund everything.

Fortunately, as societies become wealthier, more people are choosing to spend their discretionary dollars on culture in all its forms. These same people travel far and wide to admire and learn from great opera houses, concert halls, museums and art galleries around the world, as well as help to build similar models in their own communities. The evolution of the contemporary art scene is a particularly interesting outcome of this. (For one, it is often not readily understood, so there is a certain challenge in that one has to make an effort, at times, to “read it.”) Growing alongside this swelling interest is an increase in monetary value. More people than ever before regard art as an investment asset. This is helpful to the artist and arts generally, but it is not philanthropy, although the two activities may be related. Becoming a philanthropist inevitably does give you a much broader understanding of contemporary art and enables better decision-making, whether as a collector or an investor. However, this aspect of collecting does not result in the true benefits of genuine philanthropic support for art.

I founded the Patrons of the Auckland Art Gallery 30 years ago. The group consists of people who donate a certain amount of money annually in order to purchase works of art for our city gallery. There is no obvious financial payback for these donors, yet the rewards are enormous. Over the years, the members have had the chance to know and be involved with not only the gallery and its curators but also with many of the artists whose works they have purchased. In this same way, many members have also started collecting work by these same artists after developing close relationships. Their knowledge has increased exponentially.

For many, one of the great benefits of becoming a patron is in meeting and associating with people who share the same interests. Many deep friendships have developed. For others, it is a sense of prestige in being associated with philanthropic activity. For others still, the reward lies in being recognized by name in a program or catalog, or on the wall of an institution.

However, for all of these members, the greatest benefit is the simple joy of knowing you have made a contribution to your society, enabled an activity that would not otherwise have happened, and made the world a better place.

Over the past few years, societies that have not had a long tradition of philanthropy have become much better at recognizing and appreciating such support. Artists or art institutions initially resented being reliant on private donors. As these relationships deepened, however, this sentiment usually disappeared. Governments have equally realized that they can’t do everything and that their society is increasingly dependent on private donors for many aspects of cultural life. The result is that, in most instances, they at least provide tax deductibility for cultural charitable donations.

As our societies become more sophisticated and wealthy, I believe the desire to give back, and to be seen as a supporter of the arts, will increasingly be regarded as the mark of a civilized person and a civilized society.

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 85 a year or USD 160 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the November/December 2017 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 15.