The art of philanthropy

At a time when traditional sources of arts funding are on the wane, philanthropists and charitable foundations are helping to drive the cultural cause

When actor Leonardo DiCaprio addressed the room at a Christie’s fundraiser in New York in May, he urged the audience to “bid as though the fate of the planet depended on us”. They listened. Over the next few hours, all 33 of the auction’s artworks sold amid frenzied bidding, raising $31.74m. Additional donations pushed the total to $38.8m for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, with the proceeds going to fund global conservation projects. It was, according to industry chatter, one of the highest-grossing charity auctions on record.

“All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you,” DiCaprio told the crowd.

Art and philanthropy are natural bedfellows. Around the world, the art sector is both a beneficiary of, and a vehicle for gifts from wealthy donors. From museums to opera houses, to galleries and theatres, few would survive without support from rich patrons. At the other end of the scale, high-ticket artworks regularly go on the block to raise funds for a raft of worthy causes, gifted either by owners or by the artists themselves.

“Art as a commodity is easy to handle and it’s beautiful,” says Hala Khayat, head of sales and associate director at Christie’s Middle East. “It’s something people want to buy into and that cuts across all cultures and pockets. It’s an attractive form of philanthropy.”

The affluent Gulf states came late to the art industry, but are gaining ground rapidly. Both Qatar and the UAE have invested millions of dollars in sprawling museums, exhibitions and activities, seeking cultural parity with the West. Abu Dhabi, home to one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds, is building offshoots of the Louvre and Guggenheim alongside the Zayed National Museum, an institute set to trace the UAE’s history through the life of its founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Nearly 200 miles away, Qatar has established itself as a blue-chip art industry player, using its vast budget to secure collections of Islamic art, modernist Arab painting, photography, coins and natural history. The emirate’s Museum of Islamic Art, designed by architect IM Pei, is thought by many to rank alongside the world’s best museums. For both Arab states, this is philanthropy on a macro scale, exposing local audiences to priceless art and striking up a dialogue between the region and the rest of the world.

“There is a direct correlation between the global economy, art and philanthropy,” says Scott Stover, president of Global Art Development, a consulting firm that offers strategic planning to cultural institutions, private collectors and museums.

“In parts of the world that are experiencing rapid economic growth, such as the Gulf states, we’re seeing an increase in philanthropy which helps to underpin a local art culture,” he continues. “These countries understand that encouraging, supporting and communicating culture from their part of the world is very important in terms of global influence.”

This state-sponsored philanthropy has also helped spawn a fledgling local art scene. Dubai alone is today home to more than 100 galleries and the Middle East’s biggest annual contemporary art fair, Art Dubai. In March, the fair played host to 75 galleries from 30 countries and welcomed 25,000 visitors.

The event also sees the award of the Abraaj Group Art Prize, a yearly award launched in 2008 to shore up the region’s contemporary art scene. The prize enables five artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia to create a dream artwork, work with a global curator and then see their work exhibited locally and abroad.

“The prize has allowed artists to dream, to enable an idea to change their lives and their world, and through their artwork, help society to pause and reflect,” says Savita Apte, chair of the award. “It’s like funding education or health. But this time you’re funding an individual.”

London-based Christie’s has had a ringside seat for this cultural shift. The auction house has held two sales of jewellery and art a year in Dubai since 2006, and has done much to encourage interest in Middle East art. As arts philanthropy has gained traction in the region, Christie’s has added its weight to the use of charity auctions to raise money for local causes. “It’s still a very new thing in the region, but art auctions are rising in popularity,” says Khayat. “It shows the market’s capacity to raise money for good causes.”

Christie’s has lent its name and expertise to a stable of charity auctions, helping to raise funds for non-profits including Noor Dubai, the Sharjah-based fund Tawasul, and the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). In April, Noor Dubai’s Art4Sight initiative, which seeks to prevent and treat blindness around the world, raised around $326,000 by selling off artworks by 40 Arab and international artists.

More than $230,000 was raised at a May auction for WFP, presided over by Christie’s, which saw 56 paintings from Pakistani masters and emerging artists go under the hammer. The Dubai sale was labelled a double philanthropic victory, raising both funding and the profile of  up-and-coming Pakistani artists.

“It showcased the richness and dynamism of Pakistan’s contemporary art scene, while supporting those who still do not have enough to eat,” said businessman Irfan Mustafa, one of the organisers of the event.

The region’s new-found philanthropic bent has not gone unnoticed in Europe, where shrinking state coffers have left many arts projects exposed to a turbulent economy. Starved by funding cuts, museums, national galleries and theatres are increasingly courting private donors to help plug the holes in their budgets. Faced with Europe’s fiscal woes, many are broadening their horizons and looking east for patrons with an interest in arts philanthropy.

“Our major donors are not necessarily within France any more, or even French,” says Croisine Martin-Roland, development association for the Louvre Endowment Fund, based in Paris. “We know we must look internationally for private philanthropic support.”

The Louvre launched an endowment fund in 2009, the first French museum to do so.  It opened with a €120m (about $159m) injection from the government of Abu Dhabi, revenue from the Louvre’s first foreign outpost. Until the early 90s, the flagship of Parisian culture was entirely state-funded, but today less than half of the Louvre’s €220m ($292m) annual budget is subsidised. With the launch of its endowment – a lump sum from which interest can be drawn as income – the museum hopes to cement its long-term future.

“The Louvre was made to welcome 4 million people a year, and last year we welcomed 10 million,” says Martin-Roland. “It has an exceptional heritage and we want to preserve that and share it with future generations.” Last September, the museum unveiled a new wing for its Islamic art collection, a spectacular space roofed with curved glass panels and metallic gold mesh sheets.

The €93m ($123.5m) gallery showcases 2,500 objects and was funded largely by private gifts and sponsors. Donors included the rulers of Kuwait and Oman, and Saudi’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who said he hoped the gallery would help to promote understanding of Islamic culture and history through art.

“After 9/11 events, all Arabs and Muslims have a duty and responsibility to do as much as they can to tell the West about real Muslims, about real Islam and how peaceful our religion is,” he said.

Such cultural collaborations are becoming more popular. As competition for funding heats up, art ventures are being forced to think creatively about what they can offer philanthropists in exchange for cash. To win at the sponsorship game, says Stover, museums need to make a convincing business case to potential patrons.

“Donors have used the global economic crisis as an opportunity to restructure the way they make their philanthropic contributions,” he says. “Public institutions now have to figure out how they can complement the strategic vision and interests of the donor. They can’t simply say; ‘Please give us a cheque.’ They have to find a more compelling reason.”

The Louvre offers major donors the opportunity to create a fund in their name, and crafts tailor-made projects for them. One such fund backed by Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali, mother of eBay founder Pierre Morad Omidyar, is dedicated to the promotion of Iranian arts and culture. French entrepreneur Frédéric Jousset champions outreach programmes, taking the Louvre to audiences in hospitals or prisons.

“Major donors really invest a lot of money,” says Martin-Roland. “For them to really commit and engage, we need to provide something that connects with the donor and their interests.”

Personal ties are the primary driver behind another tendril of arts philanthropy: diaspora giving. This class of philanthropy, which sees a nation’s far-flung citizens rally to support national artists and culture, has gained traction in a globalised world.

Iran-born Shirley Elghanian founded Magic of Persia (MoP) in 2004 in an attempt to keep national art and culture alive for London’s large Iranian community. Today, MoP is an advocate for contemporary Iranian art, offering funding, residencies and exhibitions to emerging artists. Its art prize, which awards the winner a solo show at a London gallery, has become a byword for bright young Iranian talent.

The charity has done much to bring modern Iranian art into the mainstream, offering a counterpoint to the often-negative portrayal of Tehran seen in the broader media.

“Iranian culture has contributed so much to the global social and culture discourse,” says Alexandra Terry, art director and curator at MoP. “At this moment in time, there is really a misunderstanding about Iran, about its people and everyday life. I think contemporary artists and filmmakers are the voice of this generation… their art is incredibly important internationally in allowing us to find common ground.”

MoP’s main source of funding is art auctions, held every 18 months in the UAE or London. Donated artworks from both established and up-and-coming Iranian talents go under the hammer, raising money to aid the next generation of artists. The charity’s most successful sale to date generated $1.25m.

“There’s a huge, growing scene and it’s incredibly exciting that we’re seeing more opportunities for these artists worldwide,” says Terry. “An artist is an artist no matter where they live, and we want to see doors open for them. That’s our contribution.”

In Place of War

When Unicef asked James Thompson to develop and run theatre workshops in northern Sri Lanka in 2000, he expected the worst. Instead, and despite more than a decade of civil war, he was met by a thriving, dynamic theatre community whose activities stretched from street theatre to children’s shows.

“It set the ball rolling for me,” Thompson says. “I started to think; ‘Are there other artists working in war zones around the world? Can we learn something from their responses to terrible events?’”

This idea gave rise to In Place of War, based at the UK’s University of Manchester, which documents and supports art and creativity in sites of armed conflict. The project received its first grant in 2004, and Thompson has since travelled around the world to meet artists in conflict zones ranging from Cairo to Kosovo.

“It says something about human endurance I think,” he says. “It tells you something about the way people live in war zones that is often surprising. Art can be a form of relief.”

In Place of War launched its digital platform in January, as a means for artists to document, store and share their work, and engage with other creatives. Thompson eventually hopes to use the platform to create virtual exhibitions, with galleries projecting images of work from artists around the world.

“Artists provide a completely different angle or vision of conflict,” he says. “Art is a good story that is not the obvious story. It’s important not to just have one narrow understanding of what’s going on in these places.”