Hollywood’s annual awards season culminates with the Oscars, a night honouring the best and the brightest in film. The ceremony is always lavish, with designer outfits and glittering jewels reflecting the huge scale of investment in this, one of the world’s biggest industries. Because making quality films is an expensive business—even if they don’t quite match up to Gravity’s $100 million riot of special effects.

A number of this year’s awarded films address important and uncomfortable issues, including slavery (12 Years a Slave), ageing (Nebraska) and HIV (Dallas Buyers Club). All acknowledge film as a powerful social art form—a way to bring together different types of people and initiate or sustain a conversation about issues affecting society.

This potential is recognised by a number of philanthropists too. Founder of the Skoll Foundation and former President of ebay, Jeff Skoll, for example, established Participant Media to make films that ‘create awareness of the real issues that shape our lives’, producing climate change blockbuster An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

Philanthropy is well established in the arts, and major cultural institutions are highly skilled in attracting patrons to support headline performances and capital investment projects. Without this support, the arts sector would be an estimated £350 million worse off.

A number of philanthropists also look at more unusual ways to combine their passion for the arts with a social mission, such as last year’s anonymous £10 million gift to a comprehensive school to build an international standard concert venue. At NPC we have worked with a family that provided funding for recording studios and art workshops to an organisation helping people with mental health problems.

It’s not only because these individuals care deeply about drama or music that they decide to get involved. The arts are a brilliant way to engage those at risk of being excluded from society, including homeless people, young people in vulnerable situations, and offenders. What they can provide is much more than diversionary activity; the opportunity to participate in the visual, performing or literary arts can build skills, confidence and productive relationships which lead to lasting changes in individuals’ lives.

A growing body of practice supports this: great projects like Dulwich Picture Gallery’s ‘Good Times’ programme that helps older people stay socially engaged and independent, and Breathe which uses adapted magic tricks as a rehabilitation tool for people who have had a stroke of brain injury.

We’re looking at the positive benefits of arts on individuals and communities, with a focus on public service delivery, as part of the Cultural Commissioning Programme. There’s definitely an argument that arts and culture can play a role in this area, but in the context of reduced public funding across the board, the government will continue to look to philanthropists to step in. The Arts Council is aware of this need and is investing in infrastructure for the sector to continue its rich history of philanthropic support.

If you are interested in learning more about this, look out for the report over the next few months.

This article was originally published for Spear’s Magazine: ‘As the Oscars approach, think of films as philanthropy.’

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