WHAT’S a million pounds to a millionaire? Does the value of money change when you have so much you can give it away, and still sleep easy?

I ask because when it was reported that merchant banker Sir Angus Grossart has donated £1million towards the renovation of the Burrell Collection, it would have been easy to be cynical. Well, he can afford it, you might think. It must be like the shrapnel most of us find clinking in our pockets.

But while I have yet to reach the position where I can speak on this with authority, I imagine that to a man like Sir Angus, £1m feels as it does to anyone whose feet are planted firmly on the ground. It is a lot of money. Indeed, you could argue that someone attuned to every flicker on the stock market is more aware of its worth than most. And it could easily have remained in his savings account, gathering interest, rather than be given to a worthy cause.

Nor is this the first time Sir Angus has been a donor to the arts. A Lanarkshire man, who likes to recall an early business venture selling reject toffee in the Barras, he might be one of the country’s wealthiest individuals, but he has not made his money by being a Scrooge. At this point, I should declare an interest, having benefited from his kindness. Several years ago he and his wife entered a restaurant where my husband and I had just taken a table, and invited us to join them. At the end he insisted on paying the bill.

Scotland needs more people like him, not so journalists can dine well but to champion the cause of the arts. Since the advent of arts councils, theatres, dance studios, artistic enterprises, writers and festivals have become over-dependent on state funding. That was all very well when there was enough money to go round, but as government has slashed budgets, and local authorities followed suit, the impact has been dreary and even catastrophic. People have lost jobs, and companies have been downsized, or wiped out of existence. If these were businesses selling flowers or shoes, that would be bad enough. But a diminished artistic culture affects the country as a whole. An ebb tide in the arts impoverishes the imagination, saps creativity, and reduces those sources of delight that make us, and thereby society, wiser and happier.

Andrew Carnegie gave probably the biggest charitable gift we’ve ever received in the public libraries he endowed. Thanks to his bounty, millions who would otherwise have had no access to books beyond the classroom were able to learn about anything they liked. Or just read for pleasure. In some cases, the results dramatically transformed their futures, and they in turn became famous like him. Although he handed out money on all sides, it was Carnegie’s belief that the fundamental ails afflicting humankind could only be solved by enlightenment – hence the motto over his libraries, “Let there be light”. His outlook is instructive, particularly when you consider that he lived in Victorian times, an era in which, on both sides of the Atlantic, slums, disease and abject poverty were rife. While he gave money to many causes, though, his hope was for world peace, and its ultimate attainment through education.

Today, it seems that philanthropists tend to focus more on medical research or on humanitarian and environmental charities than on cultivating culture. This is not to say they are wrong, nor to detract from their munificence. But it is to suggest that the wealthy could perhaps be encouraged to consider artistic endeavour as a deserving beneficiary too, one whose trickle-down significance is incalculable.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever go back to the days of magnificent patronage, such as by the Medicis or the Strozzis. Not that those were halcyon times. Musicians and artists were obliged to pander to the whim of those in power, who could make or break a career. When Johann Sebastian Bach tried to resign, his employer, the Duke of Weimar, threw him in prison for a month. By comparison, cuts by Creative Scotland are nothing to grumble about.

Yet it’s worth remembering that even for the often-ruthless individuals whose coffers bankrolled the Renaissance or supported composers like Mozart and Beethoven, their largesse held spiritual significance. The masterpieces they helped create were seen as a passport to heaven. As well as dazzling those on earth, they were intended also to appease an invisible Almighty.

Today, philanthropy is rarely viewed as amassing brownie points in the afterlife. Instead, it is a way of sharing good fortune in the here and now, and providing a better future for those to come. Nobody can calculate the long-term benefit of funding a museum or art gallery compared with improving healthcare in an impoverished country – that kind of arithmetic is beyond anyone’s ability. It is worth noting, though, that the arts are not a luxury. They are the aesthetic equivalent of clean running water, enriching everyone’s existence. To see them flourish is a definition of civilisation. As is Sir Angus’s gift.