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The Smart Way to Enjoy Art? Philanthropy

Frieze and Create are spearheading the ‘new giving back’.

Every year at the start of October, the art world descends upon London to look at pictures, to buy and sell art, for curators to conspire on future exhibitions and for talent young and old to be celebrated.

Of course, Frieze week is a great place to deal in art, but it’s also a very good place to talk about how that work gets out and finds an audience, makes a difference, how it’s funded – or even given away. It’s not a bad place to talk about philanthropy.

A good place to start any story about art and philanthropy – or to just enjoy the pictures – is to swing by the Renaissance paintings in the Sainsbury wing of London’s National Gallery. The Medicis, the only 15th Century Florentine banking dynasty you need really know, were the champions and patrons of generations of painters, including Sandro “Venus and Mars” Botticelli and Fra Filippo “Annunciation” Lippi. They helped to change the face of art forever, mostly by paying for it (and by not being the Church).

As the art world stretches out into fresh forms, it requires different means with which to live, engage and, frankly, to be paid for

It’s also instructive to look at the credentials of the rest of that august bunch mentioned above. The Sainsbury Wing was built for the nation with a fortune made in supermarkets (the Sainsbury family have long associations with art in Norwich and London). The National Gallery itself was built to house the collection of John Julius Angerstein, a banker who spent the late 18th and early 19th century amassing a fortune and spending it on art.

Angerstein made a lot of money from the slave trade and had himself painted by Joshua Reynolds in the style of Van Dyck, so wasn’t without a cruel or a vain streak, but nonetheless, the collection was bought for the United Kingdom in 1824.

So far, so Old Masters (or indeed Frieze Masters, the part of the fair for works up to the late 20th century) but what of the modern and contemporary worlds?

Anthony D’Offay’s got a bit of the modern Medicis about him. D’Offay was a prominent contemporary art dealer in London from the 1960s to 2002, when he became a bequeather, selling his collection to the Tate and National Galleries of Scotland for £26.5m, a mere snip of the £125m at which it was valued. No small thing, that change of tack, for a man who was known euphemistically as a talented and flinty negotiator.

The Medicis are how we think of the patronage end of philanthropy and the names Sainsbury and D’Offay are now associated with a more direct form of “giving back”. But as the art world stretches out into fresh forms it requires different means with which to live, engage and, frankly, to be paid for.

The most interesting and estimable amongst these new agents of change is Create, an arts charity that commissions and produces artworks with an emphasis on engaging with the public and being relevant and specific to the people and the places by which these works are rooted: in Create’s case, mostly east London, home of many artists.

Create’s work is no “build it and they will come” monolith factory but a collaborative process that involves communities in projects that weave a path through art, architecture, urbanism and event management. No mean feat.

Among their projects are: an unpromising flyover undercroft transformed into a performance and screening space loved by locals around east London’s Olympic Park; a drinks company set up to celebrate the area’s hop-picking and allotment-loving past and present; a sculpture-cum-adventure playground in Barking, designed by the artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd.

Matthew Slotover, co-founder of Frieze magazine and the Frieze art fairs, is an active board member and adviser to Create and notes that the group’s work is about promoting a benign ecosystem, “supporting the infrastructure that cultivates talent is essential both for artists, and for their connections with communities, for the benefit of everyone.

Create enables this engagement,” he says, “while also gaining artists’ exposure with global audiences through programmes like Frieze Projects East, or the Company Drinks project which runs at Frieze London.

“We like to think of the fairs as cultural events as well as a place for commercial transactions,” Slotover continues. “Part of the success at Frieze has been in changing the way that people look at art. People can get very close to the work, attend the talks, and even take part in a performance – it involves them in a way that museum shows didn’t really do before. Frieze never compromises on quality – of art, of galleries, but also of the presentation of the fairs: the design, architecture, restaurants… the whole experience. And we try to make them fun and exciting.”

Frieze’s type of philanthropy, along with that of Create, is benevolent, open and imaginative. There is an enthusiasm to make things that make people think, but also, very simply, make people smile. And there is no evidence of the Medicis ever doing that.

Robert Bound is Culture Editor of Monocle, and host of Culture with Robert Bound on Monocle 24 radio: www.monocle.com.