With music organisations increasingly dependent on private donations, is crowd-sourcing a safer approach than relying on the generosity of the super-rich?
A warning from Lucerne on the limits of private philanthropy: not content with establishing the world's most luxurious pick-up band, Claudio Abbado's Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and the world's most ambitious project to cement a performance practice of new music at the heart of young people's training – the Lucerne Festival Academy, led every year by Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain – the Lucerne festival and its artistic director Michael Haefliger plan to set up the world's most innovative auditorium for music theatre, the Salle Modulable.
The building could realise the sort of genuinely modular space for innovative operatic work that Boulez, and others, have been dreaming of for decades. That's the idea anyway, and after having received a donation of £82m from Christof Engelhorn through a trust, the Salle Modulable was in a can-do-go situation. That was until Engelhorn's death in 2010, after which the Bermuda-based Butterfield Trust decided to withhold the money, for arcane and seemingly nonsensical legal reasons. The trust was set up by the Engelhorn family to realise their financial wishes, Christof made clear his desire to give the cash to the Lucerne festival before his death, and his trustees now seem to be flouting his express intentions. I've just been in Lucerne, writing about Bernard Haitink's conducting masterclass (more of which anon), and sources close to the festival say that legal action is likely to be started in the Swiss courts soon.
There's no doubt this is a huge potential loss to the Lucerne festival, and, possibly, for the future of music theatre; but it's also a reminder of what can go wrong when you're over-reliant on private donations to underwrite big capital expenditure. But that's where the coalition says the arts in the UK should look in the future to make up for diminishing Arts Council and local authority support. It's a drum that has been banged on these pages before, but it's worth restating that private philanthropists are less minded to give away their money at a time of economic penury, that the government has so far failed to create anything approaching a favourable tax system to generate a more fulsome culture of giving, and that individuals would rather give their money to sure-fire successes rather than as start-up cash for innovative new projects. And there's a further warning from across the Atlantic, too: astonishingly, the Philadelphia Orchestra has just filed for bankruptcy, even if the orchestra insists it will carry on giving concerts rather than bailing on its audience like the Detroit Symphony did.
So far, so depressing, and yet there's also news of the tiniest of green shoots in East Anglia, with the Britten Sinfonia's Tenner for a Tenor campaign to crowd-fund a new piece by Jonathan Dove for tenor Mark Padmore, which will premiere in April 2012. There's nothing new about this idea, which is really a son of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's longstanding Sound Investment scheme, through which micro-donations – to use the parlance of our times – have commissioned major new pieces since 1995. There's also the London Music Masters' Buy a Bar project to fund a commission from Martin Suckling, another alliterative piece of crowd-sourcing.
The beauty of these schemes, and others like them, is that you feel part of the process as someone who has contributed, and the institution themselves can bask in the security that comes from knowing that your tenner, £50, or whatever, isn't going to go the way of the Engelhorn millions in Lucerne. Unless you too have a Bermuda-based trust at your fingertips ...
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