Cash for Cate? Struggling arts groups offer donors online access to stars | Culture


A concert from your favourite opera singer, delivered personally to your laptop, might help lift the spirits this month. Or how about a remote exercise session with young ballet dancers, or an exclusive virtual tour of an artist’s studio?

Arts organisations are seeking inventive approaches to reach key donors in an effort to maintain vital financial support lines. Early in the pandemic a Zoom cocktail party was a novelty, but now wealthy patrons of Britain’s arts organisations and venues are proving harder to entice.

“People don’t want to read Ulysses-length tracts from a fundraising department,” said Wasfi Kani, chief executive and founder of Grange Park Opera, who has been offering donors the chance to hear Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel sing them a personal happy birthday.

Kani’s Surrey-based opera company enjoys the support of around 1,000 key wealthy people and her priority has been to keep in personal contact. “I can answer questions with a phone call and let them know what is happening,” said Kani, who received a CBE in the New Year’s honours list.These people want sincerity, not slogans and not hyperbole.”

Private fundraising income for the performing arts has fallen sharply in the past 10 months. Events such as gala dinners and drinks receptions are impossible, necessitating creative ideas for reaching sponsors and benefactors.

“Rewards, whether artist works or unique events, are a popular way to generate support for campaigns, allowing people to donate to an important cause, but get something brilliant back too,” a spokesperson for UK charity Art Fund told Artnet News.

This was the spirit behind Manchester’s 50 Windows of Creativity initiative in the run-up to Christmas. It features colourful mosaics from Mark Kennedy and Mary Goodwin, and fine art from RP Roberts and Dreph. The award-winning photographer Benji Reid also took part in the city-wide, open-air exhibition trail that culminated in an online auction for the art, with all proceeds going to support the artists and designers involved.

A report from the National Campaign for the Arts recently showed that British institutions are now more reliant on individual donations, as the proportion of public funding has dropped by over a third since 2008, while corporate sponsorship has dropped by almost 40% in just the last seven years. Philanthropic giving has also dipped by about 10% since 2017.

To combat this trend and to keep in touch with patrons during lockdown, London-based English National Opera launched an innovative campaign called ENO TV, providing supporters with behind-the-scenes access.

The opera singer Bryn Terfel has been singing personal happy birthdays to donors of Grange Park Opera. Photograph: Mark Thomas/REX/Shutterstock

The service offers “in conversation” events with singers, directors and performers from the opera chorus and orchestra, plus backstage tours of key departments such as wardrobe, millinery, wigs and props. “Our supporters value it as an opportunity to stay in contact with our organisation and to connect with like-minded people, while simultaneously learning more about opera itself,” said chief executive Stuart Murphy.

The situation in America is more perilous, as there is much less government arts funding and no national Covid-19 support for the arts equivalent to UK Treasury provisions. Individual giving to arts organisations fell by 14% in the US in the first nine months of last year, and the average size of gifts from the most loyal patrons fell by nearly 40%.

Cate Blanchett is one of the film stars to step up to the plate, taking part in remote events, including appearing on screen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music gala event.

The pandemic has forced arts institutions on both sides of the Atlantic to swiftly up their online game. The New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet usually hold a big benefit event and a backstage tour for donors after a Christmas Saturday matinee of The Nutcracker. This time Tiler Peck, principal dancer, gave an online tour instead, while those who had bought tickets watched from home after receiving a package of treats delivered to their doors.

Now “online-event fatigue” is the new enemy. The director of New York’s Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, Richard Armstrong, is facing a $13m deficit. Rather than switch to a digital gala, he decided to set up a simple “gala fund” for donations instead.

In Surrey, Grange Park Opera’s Kani understands the issue of setting the right tone with donors. “In many ways it is easier for me to keep in touch, in a small operation, but it is important not to just ask for money. Our online seasons, Interim and Found, were free and aimed at employing artists and offering new material. We’ve also put out weekly ‘Amuse-bouche’ items looked at by 5,000 people. They include short films, like baritone Simon Keenlyside’s Autumn Walk, which was very popular and a way to learn a different side of an artist.”


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