I hope I make a fair contribution to the arts sector.  Not only have I given a lot of my time to supporting contemporary artists over the last 20 years, but I buy from artists and am a Friend/Member/Patron of various arts societies and institutions. Collectively, with the millions of other individuals who are interested in the arts, people like me are contributing 44% of private funding to keep the sector going, which is roughly the equivalent to the contribution made by the State.  I am an un-named philanthropist and I am thankful to remain so. The remaining funding is provided by corporate and foundation donors who are generally acknowledged publicly for their donations and, some might say, comes with certain privilege and benefits.

A week or so ago I was up at Cromwell Place in London.  A row of five townhouses in South Kensington that has been converted into a space to serve galleries and art dealers who wish to host pop-up art exhibitions in London.  Often one can visit and see a dozen or so different exhibitions, which makes it a worthwhile destination and has a lovely cafe too.  Two of the exhibitions I saw were hosted by philanthropic bodies: the Ingram Collection and RIA (the Roberts Institute of Art).  Both of these were founded by non-art business people, but who take an interest in the art world and employ people who help them make selections.  In addition to compiling their own art collections (which are often loaned to museums and galleries), the foundations also select artists for career development opportunities through residencies, networking, commissions, commendation and collaboration.  For example, the Ingram Prize (now in its 8th year) sets out to celebrate and bring attention to the work and early careers of selected UK art school graduates.  About two dozen or more finalists were on show at Cromwell Place when I visited.  In addition, RIA’s exhibition was called ‘Close Looking’ and displayed six works taken from their collection.  For each work selected, an artist/writer had been selected and commissioned to write a response to the work. 

My viewing session was followed by attending a panel discussion, courtesy of Cromwell Place, titled, ‘Curating Art Foundations: Ideas of Philanthropy’.  Amongst the panel were two representatives from the foundations and two artists from their exhibitions.  The discussion was wide ranging but got me thinking, particularly about my own relationship to those who are making selections for me to view.  Philanthropy for the arts (or in fact philanthropy for any worthy cause) is riddled with thorny issues.  The agendas and backgrounds of named philanthropists often hit the headlines: BP, Blavatnik, Sackler to name a few.  Named philanthropists have to be very careful about how they influence and guide us in our behaviour.  Receiving something of value in return for a donation is also considered both legally and ethically a quid pro quo or a case of ‘you scratch my back…’.  I am not saying that all donors are not truly altruistic, and certainly Ingram and RIA are doing some very laudable work. We should remember that we, the un-named philanthropists, also play an essential role in deciding how to judge their judgement about who comes to prominence in the art world.  Unelected billionaires may be allowed to try to determine what is good for us, but ultimately we have the power to decide whether their judgements have been appropriate for us.   

From the Ingram prize, three works caught my eye (Shirin Fathi, Abigail Norris and Louise Frances Smith) and I am grateful that the foundation has sifted through the vast number of entries to select around 25 for me to see.  In addition, I was treated to a reading by one of RIA’s commissioned artists, Osman Yousefzada, who had written a poem called ‘Untitled (for Prem)’ and I must say it was truly captivating.  Without the support of RIA it would not have been written.  As a result of this encounter, I will be watching out for Osman in the future (at the 60th Venice Biennale in 2024) and I have since taken the time to further research the three artists from the Ingram Prize.  Whether I had been drawn by these single works because of some personal association or memory in a single instance, or whether they are actually representative of an amazing body of work yet to come from a great artist, is for me to research and follow.  It is for me, and you, to notice, support and vote with our presence in the future.  The word philanthropy comes from Ancient Greek φιλανθρωπία (philanthrōpía) ‘love of humanity’.  When we as viewers look at a work of art that has been selected for us, we must remember that we are giving our time to pause and consider our humanity (which, of course, is good for our wellbeing) but we must continue to question whether what we are being shown is a fair filtering in exchange for the precious resource of our time.


ABIGAIL NORRIS, The Faellen Aeppel, 2023, latex, wadding, tights, copper wire, vintage silk gloves

SHIRIN FATHI, The Disobedient Nose, Fig. 1. The reconstruction of a nose, 2022, photograph

LOUISE FRANCES SMITH, Epibiont, 2023, wireweed bioplastic, cotton scrim, hessian, cotton thread