Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s Secretary for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, announced plans last week for an intriguing-sounding program called the National Funding Scheme. The scheme will be a digital, primarily mobile, arts philanthropy platform — basically a nation-wide effort to get more people to donate to cultural institutions by streamlining that process onto cellphones and tablets. It will include options for giving via text message, apps, near field communication and pre-stored credit cards.
The platform is being developed by Panlogic, whose managing director, William Makower, told Hyperallergic that the project was largely driven by the results of a research study the company conducted last year about digital philanthropy. “The need to ask people to give at the highest point of emotional engagement was a key finding,” Makower wrote, and those high points occur when people are actually inside institutions rather than back at home in front of a computer. An animation on the National Funding Scheme site emphasizes this point, showing a museumgoer who decides on the spot to pull out his phone and give 5 pounds to help restore a painting. The scenario also suggests an incredible specificity within the program about where donated money goes, which is likely a response to Panlogic’s finding that “for 48% of respondents something that shows what is being done with a donation will increase giving.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, my first thought when I heard about the National Funding Scheme was Kickstarter. Mass giving is kicking the butt of national funding these days, at least here; it was reported in February that Kickstarter was on track to distribute more money than the NEA this year. Then again that wasn’t exactly shocking news: government funding for the arts in the US often ranges from not bad to abysmal, and the NEA’s budget has never recovered since it was slashed decades ago.
But in the UK, and Europe in general, federal arts funding has always been stronger — or at least it was until two years ago, when the UK suffered large cuts, which were followed by scathing ones again last year. Makower stressed to me that “funds raised through the National Funding Scheme are not in any way replacement of Arts Council (or other public) money,” and he also said that Kickstarter gave him “little inspiration.” Yet I can’t shake my feeling that the two are far more related than he says, or sees. Even Hunt admitted this, when he spoke at the unveiling for the National Funding Scheme:
This could have been a period of great gnashing of teeth and despair [in the cultural sector] but actually everyone has risen to the challenge and we have got to look beyond the current, real challenges we face to work out a better way of funding cultural organisations that makes us less dependent on any one source. I for one strongly hope that the state will continue to be able to support the arts in a very major way — I am a big supporter of it — but I don’t think it would just be me if I were to say that the state is becoming a less reliable partner because of the huge challenges in national finance.
So while I’m excited by the National Funding Scheme, and while I love supporting projects I’m passionate about on Kickstarter, I can’t help but also feel worried. Neither we (the US) nor they (the UK) can expect Big Society or our friends’ (and their friends’) enthusiasm to carry our cultural heritage entirely.