The Givers

Philanthropists great and small benefit art and architecture, and in doing so gain our respect

In 1901, merchant banker, John Pierpoint Morgan, bought the company of Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Already very rich indeed and a noted philanthropist, Carnegie now faced almost impossible wealth. Morgan paid $480m for his company, the equivalent of well over $13 billion today. Uncomfortable with the money, Carnegie spent the rest of his life giving it away to good causes, in both the UK and America. Among much else, we owe the backbone of our public lending library system to him. By the time he died in 1919 he had managed to offload most of his wealth, and got rid of the rest through his will.

The Carnegie attitude – that it is the privilege and the duty of the wealthy to act in at least something of this spirit – persists to this day in the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates, the Sainsbury family and James Dyson, though it is not nearly as widespread among the newer super-rich as it should be. 

But what is the impact of today’s philanthropy on our built environment? It might just be a little local trust – whisky money – in northern Scotland contributing a tithe to Gareth Hoskins’  Shetland arts centre.  It might be the crucial input of the Clore Duffield and Trusthouse Foundations into the funding of the modest Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall by Long and Kentish.  Or it might be the majority funding of London’s new Jewish Community Centre by Lifschutz Davidson (Clore Dufffield money again) or the complete cost of the Stirling Prize-winning Sainsbury Laboratory for Plant Sciences in Cambridge by Stanton Williams. 

As public funding shrinks or disappears, the gap between rich and poor widens, and tax avoidance by the wealthy becomes a cause of social unrest, this is something that the fortunate few can do to put something back into society. As Carnegie put it: ‘A man who dies rich dies disgraced.’