Community chest

Arts funding - John Holden on the unusual charitable foundation that has made Britain a better place

The UK arm of the Portugal-based Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Without the Gulbenkian, as it is usually known, Britain would be a poorer place. The foundation has led the way in transforming many fields: the arts, social welfare, education and Anglo-Portuguese relations. The list of organisations that it has supported includes the Samaritans, Shelter, Voluntary Service Overseas, the Runnymede Trust and Snape Maltings. It has backed social entrepreneurs since before the phrase was invented, lending assistance to figures such as Lord Young of Dartington and Chad Varah, as well as the energetic community that transformed Coin Street on the South Bank in London in the 1980s and 1990s.

Like most charitable bodies, the Gulbenkian has not always avoided controversy. In the 1980s, its oppositional stance in the face of government retrenchment over funding for the arts earned it as many critics as admirers. More recently, it was widely mocked in the press for lending its support to a campaign to ban smacking. However, for an organisation that has sought to play a pioneering role in bringing about social change, the criticism it has attracted has been small.

The foundation's money came from the legacy of Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, an Armenian and naturalised British citizen who was also one of the 20th century's boldest art collectors. He was known as "Mr Five Per Cent", because the source of his immense wealth was a stake of that amount in the income of the Iraq Petroleum Company - although the foundation wisely diversified into a broad portfolio of assets early in its history.

Equally early on, the Gulbenkian adop-ted an approach that has become the model for arts funding and social enterprise. A team of experts is assembled, including on-the-ground practitioners as well as members of the great and the good. They investigate an issue, draw up a policy and publish a report which, very often, has an influence far beyond its immediate purpose. This method was applied at first to small-scale matters: in 1959, for example, when a committee led by Brigadier E T Williams addressed the question of what to do about "The needs of youth in Stevenage", its conclusion was that, rather than build a new youth club, it would be better to appoint a youth officer. ("Blokes are more important than bricks," as the report rightly said.) Shortly afterwards, the 1959 Bridges report, Help for the Arts, changed the face of the cultural industry in Brit- ain, making it less metropolitan and less mandarin, and making space for the flowering that would distinguish the 1960s.

Other ground-breaking reports followed, addressing everything from community work to local broadcasting. Some, such as Ken Robinson's The Arts in Schools (1982) and John Myerscough's The Economic Importance of the Arts in Britain (1988), are still required reading. It is impressive how often an organisation of the Gulbenkian's meagre size has managed to prod politicians and bureaucrats into action on matters that now seem obvious. In 1992, it sent an anti-bullying pack to every school in the country, raising the profile of an issue that politicians had largely ignored.

While the foundation has led developments in many fields, its role has also been shaped by the political and social contexts of the day. In the immediate postwar years, the Gulbenkian did much to assist official policy in building up support for the arts and social welfare. In the 1960s, it cham-pioned experimentation in the arts and community self-help in social life. During the economic and political upheavals of the 1970s, it became more critical of governments; this turned to outrage in the face of the Thatcher government's determination to shrink the responsibilities of the state. As the then director of the Gulbenkian, Peter Brinson, put it: "The relative calm of the past 25 years is over and huge changes are certain."

Those changes affected every area of the foundation's concern. For example, it had spent the previous two decades helping to build up contemporary dance in the UK, but between 1980 and 1982, a quarter of small-scale dance companies went out of business. Thatcherism also ended the unwritten concordat between charitable bodies and governments - that foundations such as the Gulbenkian would do the initial risk-taking, and then the public sector would take over when innovation had proved successful.

Naturally, not everything the foundation has tried has worked. It expended a great deal of effort and energy during the 1970s in an unsuccessful attempt to create a national centre for community work. The Community Challenge conference in Liverpool in 1981, organised by a youthful Charles Clarke, was hijacked by hard leftists who questioned the Gulbenkian's right to organise the event at all.

Today the Gulbenkian is probably best known for the annual £100,000 Gulbenkian Prize for Museums and Galleries and for the Atlantic Waves festival, which has brought Portuguese culture to the attention of the British public. Many relationships started in the 1950s have survived to this day - the Tate being one of the most important (the Gulbenkian is funding the current Tate Triennial show, "New British Art", just as it funded the seminal "54/64" show in 1964).

As the 50th anniversary approaches, the Gulbenkian can pride itself on its history of supporting innovation in culture, education and social welfare. It has done this as much by adapting itself to circumstances as by challenging the status quo. In seeking to help others while weathering the storms of the past half-century, it has fashioned for itself a role resembling one of the first projects that it funded in the 1950s: the self-righting lifeboat.