Dr Keith Howard

It is an axiom of arts funding that you never know who might be in your audience. Dr Richard Mantle, the chief executive of Opera North, discovered this first hand when he met a publisher and long-time opera lover by the name of Keith Howard.

Dr Howard founded the Bradford based academic publishing company Emerald, an international business with a staff of 250 that does much of its work overseas. A regular opera-goer, he agreed in 2003 to offer a helping hand to ON's latest educational project, a fantastical puppeteered version of Mozart's The Magic Flute aimed specifically at children.

“There were a hundred young kids in the audience,” he says, “and just sitting there watching them fascinated by this performance of puppets and music was something that will stay with me.”

Generous as his contribution was, the company could not have imagined how much further Dr Howard?s philanthropy would extend. The relationship came into its own with the launch of ON's Transformation project, a £32m campaign to restore the ailing Leeds Grand theatre to its former glory
and create a new permanent home for the opera company. Dr Howard made an early gift to the project of £100,000 and followed it up with a further £1,025,000. His generosity and enthusiasm led in turn to many more supporters coming forward.

“We lived hand to mouth in the attics of the grand theatre, the way it was set up 30 years ago when the company was born,” Dr Mantle remembers. “We had no dedicated home of our own. Keith was very keen to walk around the building and see what we were trying to do and he became very enquiring about our work. I think he just got the message that this project had to happen.”

Dr Howard?s most generous contribution yet has been to the company?s so called Future Fund, which he chairs and is supporting to the tune of £3 million. His relationship with the company, says Dr Mantle, has transformed the way Opera North approaches its supporters, and has encouraged them to extend their educational and community work. In particular, he has inspired the company to restore the city?s neglected Assembly Rooms, creating a brand new performance and education space.

“He really believes in action to encourage other people,” says Dr Mantle. “He sees philanthropy as proactive. It?s not just about giving largesse and taking the credit for it; it?s about putting his head above the parapet to encourage others. He's saying, "I will do this, I want to see other people come to the table" and a number of people have joined him at that table as a result.”

The Philanthropy Medal judges praised Dr Howard as the perfect example of a local philanthropist focussing on a single project to effect major changes. “He really understood the needs of the institution and was helping them with advice as well as money,” says Arts & Business CEO Colin Tweedy. “He?s a classic venture philanthropist, he's been pushing them forward and writing the cheques at the same time, and is obviously enormously appreciated. Without him, a lot of things would simply not have happened.”

Dr Howard says he feels “humility and pride” at receiving the honour. “I had absolutely no idea that this was coming. It was a total shock.”