Philanthropic capitalists like J Paul Getty are rare, says Charles Handy, but we can all do more to encourage companies to give on our behalf.
The new Getty Center in Los Angeles opens to the public on 16 December 1997. I had the privilege of a sneak preview last month, kindly arranged by two American friends. When it is finished it will definitely be worth a detour, as the Michelin Guide would put it, even a detour to California.
You probably won't think so as you approach it, perched as it is on a hilltop above the San Diego freeway in the smart part of Los Angeles. It is, from afar, an undistinguished jumble of buildings, but the Center was designed from the inside out by the architect Richard Meier, and it is only when the little electric tram takes you up inside the complex that the luxuriant beauty of the place captures your spirit. It is built of honey-coloured Italian travertine, roughly textured, with six separate buildings spread over an area comprising 780 acres to create the feel of a campus. At its heart is the Art Gallery, built around a piazza, with stunning views over Los Angeles to provide a visual breathing space between the art, which is itself so stunning.
A cathedral of secular times
The Center seems destined to be the cultural heart of Los Angeles and may even go some way to change the somewhat tawdry image of that city.
It will stand as one of the new cathedrals of our modern more secular times, along with the new Guggenheim in Bilbao, the enchanting new museum in the old centre of Shanghai and perhaps even our own yet-to-be appreciated National Library in London, which is another inside-out design.
Where our forbears built their cathedrals to the glory of God and, let us be frank, to boast of their own magnanimity and wealth, we build arts complexes to the glory of man's creations. There is nothing wrong in that, but whereas the buildings in Bilbao, Shanghai and London were all paid for by the taxpayer, the Getty was financed from the legacy of one man alone and it is thought to be the most expensive edifice ever built in the United States.
I find that a splendid example of the old Jewish saying about money - make as much as you can, give away as much as you can. If a man and a society is remembered in the end, not for how they made their money but for how they spent it, then J Paul Getty will be remembered not as the tough misanthropic and rather miserly oil magnate but as one of the cathedral builders for the new millennium. That is the ultimate justification for capitalism, that it leaves a society better than it was before, not just more wealthy but also more glorious, more uplifting and less decadent.
George Soros, best known as a currency speculator, would add 'and more open' and he has made it his personal crusade to foster that spirit in the old communist countries, spending large chunks of his personal fortune in that cause. And Ted Turner, founder of the global news service CNN in the US, has promised $1 billion to the United Nations to develop its work for the children of the world and has called for a list of the top donors to be published along with the list of the top earners.
Capitalism can redeem itself
Getty, Soros and Turner are three of the most visible capitalist philanthropists.
There are many others of their ilk, but who shun the limelight or who work through private foundations. They should be more celebrated, for their deeds redeem the more ugly aspects of shareholder capitalism, which can seem to be only about the selfish pursuit of personal wealth.
The rhetoric of shareholder capitalism suggests exactly that - firms work to enhance the income and the wealth of their shareholders. What they do with that wealth is then up to those individuals. Unfortunately, few of us ever have enough of that wealth to be able, individually, to use it for any philanthropic purpose. Cathedral building is largely left, therefore, to the few very rich or, increasingly to the taxpayer - and there are always other more immediate calls on these taxes.
Individually, we cannot hope to be philanthropic capitalists of any significance, but collectively we could. The companies which we jointly own could do it on our behalf. To some extent they already do. Most big companies have their charity fund and their corporate affairs budget, which they justify to their shareholders as the price of being an acceptable corporate citizen.
There are even schemes by which their employees can authorise the company to make deductions directly from their salaries for charitable purposes.
Let shareholders contribute
Yet I, as a shareholder in a small way, have never been asked by any of the companies, of which I theoretically own a part, whether I would like them to increase their corporate giving or whether the scheme which they already offer to their employees could also apply to their shareholders.
If such a scheme existed, a shareholder charitable trust could be created which would, in due time, amass a capital sum that would be the collective equivalent of a tiny Getty or a mini Soros. We, the part-owners of that trust, could then be consulted as to its disbursement. The bureaucracy, of course, would be tedious, and the end results, some would say, not worth the trouble. But the meaning would be in the process as much as in the final result. We might not be able to build an arts complex or start a new university but we would in a small way feel that we too would be contributing to a better society, that we too would be remembered for how we spent our money and not just for how well our shares had performed, that we too had helped to make capitalism work for the good of all and not just for the fortunate.
Charles Handy is a management writer and social philosopher.