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A Conversation with Leslie Ramos Author of Philanthropy in the Arts
Artful Women: Conversations with Leading Female Authors in the Art World
Feature 13 May 2024

This month’s instalment of our series ‘Artful Women: Conversations with Leading Female Authors in the Art World‘ features Leslie Ramos, the author of ‘Philanthropy in the Arts: A Game of Give and Take‘ and co-founder of ‘The Twentieth‘ an arts philanthropy advisory and concierge service.

Join us as we uncover the motivations behind her writing, the challenges the philanthropy world currently faces, and how her work with The Twentieth inspired her book.

How did the idea for your book ‘Philanthropy in the Arts: A Game of Give and Take’ come about?

I think there is a temptation when writing about philanthropy, whether in the arts or otherwise, to talk about it through a prism of big ideas and grandiose missions, or even focus on the macroeconomic factors that lead us to philanthropy’s worst tendencies (such as are very well explored by Anand Giridharadas). But I wanted to do two things with my book. First, write something focused on the arts, which is not well covered at all, and really focus in on the relationships between ‘givers’ (donors) and ‘takers’ (beneficiaries), and how it is often the smallest things that can compound to great success stories, and great failings.

What are some of the main barriers currently facing arts philanthropy, and how do you suggest overcoming them?

There are many, from the small and bureaucratic inefficiencies that, when compounded, have great impact, to the bigger, systemic, and global barriers. An example of the former might be something like GiftAid in the United Kingdom. To those unfamiliar, GiftAid is a tax incentive for charitable giving in the UK, which in theory allows charities to claim 25p for every £1 someone donates. But the system is so needlessly complex that only half of donors bother to use it, meaning that UK charities are missing out on around £560m a year [2]. Some bigger, more global barriers are, for example, that 75% of non-US multimillionaires think that it is the responsibility of those wealthier than themselves to be philanthropic, because they believe that the amounts that they can give would be insufficient to make a real change [1]. This is, of course, nonsense – a $1,000 gift to a small art space can be critical – and is caused by a prevailing narrative in the media and publishing that focuses on billionaires, creating a perception that only billionaires can be philanthropists. Perhaps the most important to the arts is arts education. How can you expect someone to support the arts later in life if they were never taught about the arts at school, taken to museums by their parents, or learn about Rothko in a TV documentary? At the end of the day, many of these things can be solved by governments that recognise not only the value the arts have to a society, but also that philanthropists can be an incredibly pivotal resource to help support the arts if they are encouraged to.

Leslie Ramos_© Leo Goddard & Financial Times

In your book, you interview key decision-makers and stakeholders across arts philanthropy. Could you share any particularly illuminating perspectives or experiences from these interviews that particularly resonated with you?

I had many wonderful conversations with a real breadth of people, and in truth I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite! What I would say is that of the dozens of people I interviewed, whether they represented an organisation or were speaking for their own work, 99% of the time they spoke very openly and honestly. Only one organisation really tried to feed me PR lines about how great things were going and how nothing ever went wrong… The fact that most people I spoke to didn’t hold back speaks, I think, to the shared recognition that something must change, and that we all have to work harder to raise the standards of public engagement in the arts.

Could you elaborate on the mission of The Twentieth and how it aims to empower individuals and corporations to engage meaningfully with the arts and culture ecosystem?

Our mission is, in the broadest sense, to help funding flow from philanthropists into the arts, and we do this in two ways. On the one hand, we have found that there are many HNWIs who want to engage with the arts more benevolently and supportively, but need guidance to make sure they are doing so in the right way. The truth is that taking your first steps to supporting the arts can be overwhelming. Which organisations do I support? What should I support? How much should I give? What should I expect in return? Despite philanthropy often being well served by general philanthropy advisors within private banking and specialist organisations, there are frighteningly few people in those circles with expertise in the arts. So, we wanted to position ourselves as those people. Be a port of call for anyone who wants to give to the arts and culture the right way and make the whole process as impactful and enjoyable as possible. Then, on the other side, we also work with museums and arts organisations around the world on developing resilient funding models, that includes philanthropy but also other sources. It goes without saying, and we have seen this during the pandemic, that the more diversified an institution’s funding strategy is, the safer it is.

How does your experience at The Twentieth inform your approach to writing about arts philanthropy? Are there specific insights or case studies from your work that influenced the content of your book?

Everything in life is about continuous learning, and together with my business partner, Aurelie Cauchy, our work at The Twentieth is invaluable in constantly being exposed to the barriers that face arts organisations and the barriers and frustrations facing donors. One story I tell in the book is the experience of an arts philanthropist who offered to give a six-figure donation to a prominent museum, only to have nobody actually collect the payment. He had to chase the museum to give them the money. On the other side, one of the issues that comes up most frequently when working with non-profits is how to manage overly demanding multimillionaire donors who expect too much ‘benefit’ in exchange for often just a promise of a donation. We now look at Arthur Sackler being granted a personal 600 sq ft storage facility within the Metropolitan Museum of Art in exchange for the mere promise of a gift as a product of a bygone and lawless era, but I am afraid to say that it still happens today.  

Aurelie Cauchy & Leslie Ramos_Juan Cuartas Rueda_@Juancuartasphoto

Could you explain how The Twentieth bridges the gap between art and wealth, and what sets it apart from other art advisory firms?

What sets us apart from typical art advisory firms is simply that we are far more targeted in terms of who we work with – we do not work with any individual or company who doesn’t have philanthropic goals. Of course, they might well be building a personal art collection as well, and we support that, but often guided through a prism of how these actions can support the artists and the broader arts ecosystem. It is our view that what it means to be a bona fide art collector in the next decades will shift. It won’t be enough to just have the top works of art on your walls and be invited to the fanciest gallery dinners. You must also support, and be mindful of, the wider art world.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book, especially in terms of empowering individuals and corporations to engage meaningfully with the arts and become respected positive forces in the art world?

If there are just two things that I would like people to think about, both on the giving and taking sides, is empathy and effort. Empathy because so much of the friction that exists on a day-to-day basis in arts philanthropy essentially comes down to donors having little genuine care for the organisations and artists they purport to support, and on the other side, many within organisations take donors for granted and are not very empathetic about what the donor might genuinely want. The effort applies not really to arts organisations, but more to general HNWI population and all the other stakeholders – governments, politicians, brands, even the global art market. Having a thriving cultural non-profit sector requires those with influence on it to not only care but to put effort into supporting it. The more effort, the better.

Leslie Ramos_© Leo Goddard & Financial Times

And finally, how do you see the role of arts philanthropy evolving in the future?

We are thinking a lot about at The Twentieth about what makes a culture of philanthropy, of charity, within a society. It certainly exists within the United States, but also in Indonesia and elsewhere, but in many corners of the world it is severely lacking. Part of what keeps it going is, to some extent, peer pressure. People should be telling their peers that they support the arts, and question why those that don’t do not (or stop inviting them to parties…). Similarly, wealth managers and financial advisers should be trained to encourage philanthropy and tell their clients how many of their peers do it. Finally, the media, which often paints a pretty negative picture of philanthropy, should do more to highlight good giving across all levels. We suspect that future generations are more open about putting this pressure on their peers, which we hope is a positive trend. And hopefully this will also be good for the future of philanthropy in the arts.

Want to get your hands on a copy of ‘Philanthropy in the Arts: A Game of Give and Take‘, you can purchase it via Lund Humphries here.

Find out more information about The Twentieth, the art advisory that focuses on giving back to the arts here.

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