Contemplating the Curio Cabinet (Philanthropy as a Business)

Philanthropy is generally defined as an act or gift done or made by someone for a humanitarian purpose.  The word itself comes from the ancient Greek, meaning roughly the love of humanity; to care and nourish.  I have been pondering the many ways in which we are exposed to and influenced by artistic events; plays, music, art, lectures – all made available to us thanks to the philanthropic acts of an individual or business.  I readily admit to mixed feelings, actually, a lot of discomfort at the level of philanthropic giving in the Vancouver arts scene; the fact that so many spaces, performances, and careers seem beholden to the favour (patronage) of local philanthropists.  There is much celebration of the generosity of the benefactors and the benefits bestowed upon the public and the arts community, however I cannot shake an uneasy sense of apprehension each time I participate in a cultural event in this city and realize the space or the performance has been underwritten by a local entrepreneur or wealthy philanthropist.  I found Peter Dickinson’s article on Vancouverism (and it’s cultural amenities) provocative; it stimulated my interest to probe a little more deeply into my discomfort issue, guided by several of the discussions raised by Dickinson on the influence of developers on civic arts facility planning.  Our group visit to the Audain Museum was the last push needed to move on with an exploration of role of philanthropy in our current arts culture; the theme of patronage and sustenance for artists; an attempt to understand the personal motivations and desires of an individual philanthropist.  This essay is intended to be a critique of philanthropy by means of a visit to the Audain Art Gallery using commentary on the art seen and the feelings evoked, referencing recent interviews with the philanthropist and reflecting on the work of  Peter Dickinson, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Max Wyman and Globe & Mail journalist Russell Smith (who’s writing I admire but did not incorporate directly into this inquiry).  I also meandered along a smaller sub theme alluding to the importance and subversive nature of the very wealthy gaining a positive public image by supporting and aligning themselves with the aspirations of an appealing ‘underdog’; specifically British Columbia First Nations Artists.  Are their actions genuine and laudatory or cynical and sinister?  And what are the personal motivations and internal desires which are being played out in these philanthropic actions?  I seem to have been left with more questions than answers and hope that indicates there is still room for compromise and genuine generosity on the part of those with means and power as opposed to opportunistic and shiny endowments to those who struggle to bring their creative works to light.

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