Philanthropy and art: why Australia’s wealthy don’t invest in culture

September 22, 2014
Image courtesy Art Month Sydney
Image courtesy Art Month Sydney

Last week found me at a function in Brisbane, discussing the state of philanthropy and patronage with art dealer, Philip Bacon – one of the few gallerists who can afford to be a philanthropist in his own right. The familiar talking point was: “Why do so few corporations and wealthy individuals sponsor the visual arts?”

Because we hear only the good news we tend to assume there are people routinely pouring money into public art galleries in Australia. The truth, as Simon Mordant found when undertook an extensive door-knock on behalf of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s building program, was that the vast majority of wealthy people have no interest whatsoever in the arts.

So what do they do with their money? For the most part it seems they reinvest it, turning millions into tens of millions, then billions. The most recent BRW top 200 revealed there are now 39 billionaires in Australia. Five years ago there were nine. I’m not sure how this squares with the supposed economic crisis that was the justification for Joe Hockey’s killer budget.

One might think that with this much money in your pocket it would be a pleasure to help fund a public gallery or an arts project. Apparently not. The real pleasure lies in watching yourself creep ever higher up the rich list. Most of Australia’s truly wealthy, with a few notable exceptions, take the attitude: “It’s my money. I made it. I deserve it. Why should I start giving it away to a bunch of arty deadbeats?”

Most of the people who consistently pour money into the arts do not feature in the BRW lists. Neil Balnaves, John Kaldor, Tim Fairfax or Pat Corrigan, for instance, are not in the top 200. Neither is David Walsh, the man behind Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art. The only two billionaires with a cast-iron commitment to art are Kerry Stokes, a prolific collector and patron; and Kerr Neilson, who funds Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery.

There’s little point in looking to Gina Rinehart – worth more than $20 billion, and three times richer than anyone else in Australia. This is not an arts-friendly zone. James Packer recently threw $65 million into the arts in NSW, as a sweetener for the Barangaroo development.

An interesting case is the Lowy family, who have had a long association with the Art Gallery of NSW, and were instrumental in putting forward the plans for the “Sydney Modern” scheme. It was the greatest anti-climax of the year when Steven Lowy, then chair of Trustees, told a packed theatre about the plans for a $400 million development, but failed to contribute a cent to kick off the fund-raising process.

This was particularly noteworthy because the Lowys had cashed in a trust worth more than $663 million earlier the same week. This was a way of kneecapping the project before it even got started. In the United States it would have made any gallery a laughing stock. Even at the Auckland Art Gallery, according to former director Chris Saines, who is now in charge of the Queensland Art Gallery, a successful fund-raising appeal for a major renovation was kicked off with a major donation already in the bag.

Philanthropy, which literally means “the love of humanity”, requires a degree of unselfishness that most of our business leaders do not possess. Many executives seem to believe that “sponsorship” must guarantee some kind of financial dividend otherwise it’s not worth doing. But the true dividend for philanthropy is paid in good will – it’s about karma rather than cash. Companies that have got involved with the visual arts – from law firms such as Allens Arthur Robinson, to the Macquarie Group, to Merrill Lynch – which holds solo exhibitions in its CBD offices – have all noted the way in which staff have become progressively more interested and involved.

The sponsor of last week’s event, and major sponsor of GoMA’s Harvest exhibition, was the mining company PanAust, who paid for artist Peter Churcher to spend three weeks in Laos, visiting their mines and the local communities that surround them. The result was a body of work that has been shown around Australia, and in Laos. It has generated widespread interest and good publicity. For a relatively modest expenditure it was an excellent return.

One wonders if more companies might be encouraged to sponsor such small-scale, grass roots projects as a way of easing themselves into the arts arena and developing an understanding of the benefits involved. An arts project is a way of building bridges with clients and communities, that may – indirectly – smooth the path to profit. PanAust for instance, requires the co-operation of the Lao villagers in pursuing its mining interests, so good public relations is essential. Churcher’s project helped to bring everyone together.

Telstra has received extraordinary mileage from their sponsorship of the annual National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Darwin. The amount of money involved is relatively small, while the publicity largely looks after itself. It’s probably time the company took another look at the Award and increased its contribution.

Public art institutions have a role to play in being more responsive to the needs and interests of potential sponsors. It’s not acceptable to use a patron’s money to buy some unloveable work of avant-garde art that strikes no chord whatsoever with the donor. It’s not acceptable to use a patron’s money, as the National Gallery of Australia used Ros Packer’s money, to buy looted Indian artefacts that have to be returned to their original owners – against the gallery’s own legal advice, as it turns out.

Many donors, large and small, complain that they have been treated with rudeness or a lack of consideration. This is the first and most obvious issue that has to be addressed. The next move is to match sponsors with projects where there is some organic connection with their own public image or customer base. It sounds obvious, but it’s remarkable how poorly galleries address these fundamental points. The rise of private museums is to some degree an indicator of dissatisfaction with the public institutions.

We know the money is out there, but art institutions have to get a lot smarter when it comes to convincing potential patrons that it’s worth supporting exhibitions and building schemes. Sending out letters and starting campaigns will never do the trick. In Australia, the art of fund-raising has to be nothing less than a carefully planned seduction tailored to each individual case. Giving has to make people feel good, otherwise it simply won’t happen.

Published in RAVEN Contemporary, Thursday 18th September, 2014