IF the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund is the largest private underwriter of the arts in the United States - $58 million given out last year - why is the organization so taken with its $25,000 prize awarded at Paris's gilded 19th-century Opera Comique in a ceremony last week?
"Any time the opportunity is there to spotlight the importance of the arts and to further ways of meeting their growing needs, we're happy to be part of it," says Bruce Trachtenberg, a Reader's Digest Fund director. "With public subsidies getting tighter, it's important to encourage a steady stream of private money."
The Reader's Digest Fund joined three other recipients this year of the Montblanc de la Culture, an award established by the Montblanc penmakers to honor the world's arts patrons - the often "unsung heros of the arts," as the award's founders call them. Montblanc directors decided last year that while plenty of artists' awards existed, no one was recognizing the patrons who work to make so much of today's artistic expression possible.
"We were looking for a new way to support the arts, and the idea came up to do something recognizing the patrons who do so much for arts and culture all over the world," says Wolff Heinrichsdorff, Montblanc vice president for marketing and sales and originator of the award. "By drawing attention to arts patronage we hope to draw others to getting involved in it."
Limited to four categories - philanthropy, foundation work, the public personality, and the private vision - the awards were given out for only their second year.
Winners were Walter Carsen, a Canadian philanthropist known throughout his country for his personal and financial support of the arts, particularly dance; the Readers Digest Fund; Sir Run Run Shaw, Hong Kong statesman and leading supporter of the arts in Hong Kong and China; and (tied in the private vision category) Simon Rattle, chief conductor of the Birmingham (England) Symphony Orchestra for his work in encouraging young performing artists, and Lincoln Kirstein, founder of the New York City Ballet.
At the first Montblanc de la Culture awards in New York last year, winners included Houston philanthropist Dominique de Menil and the Rockefeller Foundation. Awards recipients are selected by a jury of prominent artists, most of whom know the benefits of such private patronage firsthand.
Asked why she thought recognizing patrons was so important, jury member and celebrated Italian ballerina Carla Fracci said, "You don't think we in the arts need the support? Like so many places, Italy is in a financial crisis and subsidies are being cut. Unless private patrons are motivated," she added, "young talents are going to be lost."
Award recipients are invited to present their $25,000 prize to the arts organization of their choice - Reader's Digest gave its award to "Comparaisons," a Parisian organization that provides public gallery space for young visual artists - but they get to keep the Montblanc pen produced in their honor.