PRIVATE PAS­SIONS

Some en­joy paint­ing and per­for­mances, oth­ers adore the par­ties. But what none of Aus­tralia’s private pa­trons of the arts wants is pub­lic­ity, writes Cor­rie Perkin

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

EXCLUSIVE arts cir­cles con­sider it a fab­u­lous bang for their phil­an­thropic buck. The 2007 Venice Bi­en­nale in­cludes cock­tail par­ties, gallery vis­its and church tours in the com­pany of Art Gallery of NSW di­rec­tor Ed­mund Capon and Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria di­rec­tor Ger­ard Vaughan. Plus din­ners and vis­its to the giar­dini ex­hi­bi­tion space. All cour­tesy of the Aus­tralia Coun­cil. All you have to do is sign a cheque for be­tween $ 6000 and $ 25,000, pay your own air fare and ac­com­mo­da­tion, and you’re part of what one reg­u­lar bi­en­nale sup­porter de­scribed as ‘‘ a great party and great fun’’.

The pur­pose? To sup­port the Aus­tralia Coun­cil’s $ 2 mil­lion Venice cam­paign, which funds three Aus­tralian artists to ex­hibit at what col­lec­tor John Kal­dor de­scribes as ‘‘ the art olympics’’. The pitch to donors was made at glam­orous in­vi­ta­tion- only launch par­ties in private Syd­ney and Melbourne homes re­cently; they were so suc­cess­ful Kal­dor, Aus­tralia’s bi­en­nale com­mis­sioner, had to turn peo­ple away. As one fi­nan­cial sup­porter said last week, ‘‘ we think the prod­uct is so good, we gave them money and we’re not even go­ing to Venice’’.

While bi­en­nale bene­fac­tors are ( mostly) in­spired by the no­tion of pro­mot­ing Aus­tralian artists, some might qui­etly ad­mit the idea of mix­ing with old money and the new rich is also a lure. Es­pe­cially if it of­fers a lu­cra­tive tax de­duc­tion. With Lucy and Mal­colm Turn­bull, Luca and Anita Bel­giorno- Net­tis, Ge­off and Vicki Ainsworth, mem­bers of Melbourne’s Myer fam­ily, art gallery iden­ti­ties Anna Schwartz, Roslyn Ox­ley, Jan Minchin and Brian Sher­man on the sup­port­ers’ list, the chance to net­work and to dis­cuss art in plush liv­ing rooms is too tempt­ing. ‘‘ Some 80 per cent of the peo­ple who went to Venice in 2005 signed up for this year be­fore the pro­gram was pub­lished,’’ Kal­dor says.

Few out­side arts cir­cles would be aware of the com­pe­ti­tion to be part of the bi­en­nale group. And that’s the way the pa­trons like it. Private par­ties with like- minded white knights is one thing; go­ing pub­lic with which causes you sup­port, how much you give, and how much you’d like to be on a board or a com­mit­tee is quite an­other.

A cal­cu­lated ex­change of pa­tron­age for profile is not for th­ese mod­ern Medi­cis. Big me­dia launches such as the Na­tional Aus­tralia Bank Sculp­ture Gallery at Can­berra’s Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia last month — named be­cause of a $ 1 mil­lion- plus gift from the bank — are al­most un­heard of in private phi­lan­thropy. The Venice project is an ex­am­ple of the tight, dis­creet cir­cles in which Aus­tralia’s arts pa­trons op­er­ate.

The arts are also far sex­ier than giv­ing to a cause such as the en­vi­ron­ment or med­i­cal re­search. ‘‘ Med­i­cal re­search doesn’t have the same ca­chet,’’ says Mar­tyn Myer, pres­i­dent of Melbourne’s Howard Florey In­sti­tute. ‘‘ Arts phi­lan­thropy cer­tainly of­fers an op­por­tu­nity to take part in so­cial oc­ca­sions. In med­i­cal re­search, we have to take a dif­fer­ent approach.’’

Un­like their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, who view private bene­fac­tion as a pub­lic event, our lo­cal he­roes tread qui­etly with their gift- giv­ing.

And, un­like the Bri­tish, for whom arts sup­port is of­ten linked to a ti­tle and a cen­turies- old fam­ily tra­di­tion of benev­o­lence, Aus­tralia’s pa­trons are of­ten phi­lan­thropy novices. Their for­tunes have been made in di­verse fields — the stock­mar­ket, law, min­ing, ra­dio an­nounc­ing, prop­erty de­vel­op­ment, even mo­bile phone re­tail­ing — and they are happy to be guided by arts in­sti­tu­tions and other donors on what they should sup­port.

In most cases, their pas­sion for the arts is gen­uine ( some, such as Visy In­dus­tries chair­man Richard Pratt — an ac­tor in his youth — are prac­ti­tion­ers).

Even those who make very gen­er­ous ges­tures, such as the bene­fac­tor who ear­lier this year pur­chased a rare 1743 vi­o­lin by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu for $ US7 mil­lion ($ 9 mil­lion), then gave it on long- term loan to the Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra’s Richard Tognetti, pre­fer to re­main anony­mous.

The vi­o­lin­ist and orches­tra leader de­scribed the donor as ‘‘ the most gen­er­ous per­son I will ever meet . . . Of course he is wealthy, but it’s not like it’s end­less money.’’

In 2004 when Vic­to­rian Pre­mier Steve Bracks an­nounced art dealer Joseph Brown’s $ 30 mil­lion gift to the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, the 86- year- old donor looked em­bar­rassed.

Un­like the orig­i­nal Medici, private donors gen­er­ally do not make overt de­mands. And few use the power of their purse to openly im­pose their tastes on the rest of us.

Gen­tle lob­by­ing, though, is com­mon. The story of the wealthy board mem­ber who sug­gested the fes­ti­val di­rec­tor in­vite a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­na­tional theatre group is not un­com­mon. Ac­cord­ing to Capon, ‘‘ Peo­ple do approach us and say they’d like to do­nate, or that they’d like to es­tab­lish this, that or the other.

‘‘ But I’m not go­ing to em­bark on a pro­gram that is not in the gallery’s in­ter­ests just to sat­isfy a spon­sor or donor,’’ the gallery di­rec­tor says.

The hands- off- the- art rule is re­spected by many lo­cal arts white knights, as Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art board mem­ber and Melbourne Fes­ti­val chair­woman Carol Schwartz points out.

‘‘ Phi­lan­thropists who con­trib­ute to the arts are not nec­es­sar­ily look­ing to shape arts and cul­ture but cer­tainly they want to make a con­tri­bu­tion to their on­go­ing sus­tain­abil­ity,’’ she says. ‘‘ I think ev­ery­body who makes a con­tri­bu­tion to the arts, whether it be fi­nan­cial or oth­er­wise, ac­tu­ally sees that as be­ing their guid­ing ob­jec­tive.’’

But while a dis­creet use of power an­noys artis­tic direc­tors and cu­ra­tors the fact is that with­out pa­trons many fes­ti­vals, plays, op­eras, dance per­for­mances, in­stal­la­tions and ex­hi­bi­tions wouldn’t hap­pen.

Since the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury Aus­tralia has had its share of arts pa­trons. Ini­tially they were driven by the dearth of cul­tural and aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions. For much of the 20th cen­tury, fundrais­ing cen­tred on putting things inside the build­ings hous­ing those in­sti­tu­tions: arte­facts, per­form­ers and orches­tras.

Of­ten do­na­tions were ad hoc, al­though the same names fea­tured reg­u­larly on donors’ plaques and fundrais­ing lists in an­nual re­ports. Mem­bers of the Lowy, Packer, Myer, Dar­ling, Bel­giorno- Net­tis, Be­sen, Mur­doch, Pratt, Smor­gon, Holmes a Court and Grollo fam­i­lies are among those who con­tinue the tra­di­tion of sup­port for the arts es­tab­lished by their par­ents and grand­par­ents.

But it wasn’t un­til the 1990s, when the cold winds of eco­nomic re­al­ity swept through the com­mer­cial theatre and per­form­ing arts sec­tors, that arts or­gan­i­sa­tions re­alised they needed to get savvy with their fundrais­ing in or­der to sur­vive and a new in­dus­try of arts pa­tron schmooz­ing was born.

A 2005 Giv­ing Aus­tralia re­port es­ti­mated in­di­vid­u­als gave $ 131 mil­lion in do­na­tions to arts and cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions in 2004, a six- fold in­crease from 1997.

Busi­ness, mean­while, gave more than $ 303 mil­lion to arts and cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions in 2003- 2004, four times the 2000- 2001 fig­ure. It’s big busi­ness. But some won­der if phi­lan­thropists, hav­ing been promised treats, are ex­pect­ing too much in re­turn. Louise Adler, pub­lisher of Melbourne Univer­sity Pub­lish­ing and a board mem­ber of the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art and the Melbourne Fes­ti­val, re­calls ‘‘ a Judeo- Chris­tian tra­di­tion of giv­ing away one- tenth of one’s in­come per year’’.

Adler says, ‘‘ There was a sense among those who were priv­i­leged that they should give back to the so­ci­ety in which they lived, and there was a tra­di­tion of giv­ing with­out ex­pec­ta­tions at­tached.

‘‘ I’ve ob­served in re­cent years, with the rise of eco­nomic ra­tio­nal­ism and the user- pays prin­ci­ple, that bene­fac­tors are now seek­ing a ‘ re­turn on their in­vest­ment’.’’

A se­nior mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive with a big arts com­pany says in­dus­try col­leagues need to ask them­selves, ‘‘ What is the spirit of phi­lan­thropy? Do peo­ple do it with no ex­pec­ta­tion of ac­knowl­edg­ment or re­turn? And if we build into this whole equa­tion ‘ if you give us this money we’ll do this for you’, it’s go­ing to en­cour­age a par­tic­u­lar type of in­di­vid­ual into the phi­lan­thropy space.’’

The ex­ec­u­tive, who de­clined to be named, ques­tions whether phi­lan­thropy- seek­ing, if it be­comes ‘‘ a func­tion within an or­gan­i­sa­tion, does it not be­come more trans­ac­tional?’’.

The ideal sit­u­a­tion, the ex­ec­u­tive notes, is to plan long- term and not just to the next fi­nan­cial year. ‘‘ What Aus­tralia wants to do is grow phi­lan­thropy. What you don’t want to do is turn off a whole bunch of po­ten­tial phi­lan­thropists where it’s show us your money then move on. To me it’s about hav­ing a long- term vi­sion and mak­ing th­ese peo­ple sup­port­ers for life and not just a sea­son.’’

Kal­dor ob­serves that arts pa­tron­age has been a form of spon­sor­ship since pre- re­nais­sance times. ‘‘ The artists be­came monks so they could be in a monastery and learn,’’ he says.

Kal­dor points to artists who de­liver lec­tures to cor­po­rate spon­sors or private bene­fac­tors as an ex­am­ple of how ‘‘ the prin­ci­ples haven’t changed, but the method of de­liv­ery has’’.

And there are still plenty of wealthy arts pa­trons who give just be­cause they want to.

‘‘ I want to give back to the com­mu­nity that has been very good to me,’’ says Jim Cousins, chair­man of the Melbourne Recital Cen­tre and a for­mer NGV trustee. Over many years Cousins, a suc­cess­ful Gee­long busi­ness­man and an­tique dealer, and his wife Libby have sup­ported the vis­ual arts fi­nan­cially.

‘‘ You could be very self­ish and say ‘ let’s buy an­other house or a big­ger car’, but there comes a point when that doesn’t do a lot for you.’’ Ac­tor, arts ad­min­is­tra­tor and mem­ber of the Myer fam­ily Carrillo Gant­ner says giv­ing to the arts and be­ing in­volved is ‘‘ some­thing I just love. That’s where I learn about my­self. That’s where I learn about the things I care about.

‘‘ I think the arts is about the best barom­e­ter of com­mu­nity health I know.’’

Carol Schwartz is the daugh­ter of long- time arts phi­lan­thropists Marc and Eva Be­sen. With her sis­ter Naomi, chair­woman of the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art, and brother Daniel, she learned cul­tural phi­lan­thropy from her par­ents’ ex­am­ple.

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‘‘ I was brought up in a house­hold where we were sur­rounded by the most won­der­ful art you could be ex­posed to,’’ Schwartz re­calls.

‘‘ We grew up sur­rounded by dis­cus­sions about what the art forms were ex­press­ing, we were ex­posed to theatre and mu­sic and the per­form­ing arts . . . you’d have to be a pretty amaz­ing in­di­vid­ual for an artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity not to evolve when your role mod­els ex­posed you to the arts in those ways.’’

In 2003 the Be­sen fam­ily opened its own private art gallery, the Tar­raWarra Mu­seum of Art in Vic­to­ria’s Yarra Val­ley.

For years, the fam­ily pre­ferred a quiet profile but their ges­ture has in­spired oth­ers; one of the up sides to go­ing pub­lic.

‘‘ I think the nur­tur­ing of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions is ab­so­lutely cru­cial, but at the same time there’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing bal­ance be­tween the de­sire for anonymity and re­ally want­ing to con­trib­ute un­der the radar, but also show­ing lead­er­ship,’’ Schwartz says.

One of Aus­tralia’s most ac­tive arts phi­lan­thropists is Dame Elis­a­beth Mur­doch.

For many years she has as­sisted pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, build­ing cam­paigns, artists, fes­ti­vals, even the St Paul’s Cathe­dral restora­tion project in Melbourne.

Gant­ner, no slouch him­self when it comes to arts sup­port, calls her ‘‘ the Mt Ever­est of per­sonal phi­lan­thropy in Aus­tralia’’.

‘‘ Her lead­er­ship,’’ he adds, ‘‘ in­spires many peo­ple to give.’’ For many years Dame Elis­a­beth served on arts boards and com­mit­tees; giv­ing time, as well as money, was im­por­tant to her.

And many wealthy peo­ple who pop­u­late to­day’s cul­tural board­rooms may agree.

But what’s the pay­back: power, sta­tus, free tick­ets and open­ing night par­ties? ‘‘ I’m told this might be so, but I can’t imag­ine why you’d bother,’’ says Gant­ner, who is also pres­i­dent of the Vic­to­rian Arts Cen­tre Trust and pres­i­dent of the Myer Foun­da­tion.

‘‘ Most peo­ple are flat­tered to be asked but, my god, I don’t go to 16 arts cen­tre meet­ings a year for so­cial net­work­ing. Nor does it mo­ti­vate me to sit up late at night read­ing to­mor­row morn­ing’s board pa­pers. And I think most peo­ple on arts boards feel the same.’’

‘‘ The one thing boards and man­age­ments and artis­tic peo­ple spend their time think­ing about is how to hold ev­ery­thing to­gether in its cur­rent form,’’ says Ian Roberts, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Harold Mitchell Foun­da­tion and a sea­soned arts board mem­ber.

‘‘ The dy­namic in th­ese board­rooms — at least, those I’ve been a part of and know a fair bit about — is blimey, how are we go­ing to keep this ship afloat? How are we go­ing to keep do­ing what we want to do? But I don’t see a lot of heavy­hand­ed­ness stop­ping the artis­tic di­rec­tor or the artists from do­ing what they want to do.’’

Stephen Arm­strong, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer at Melbourne’s Malt­house, be­lieves pa­trons have the ca­pac­ity to in­flu­ence through their bene­fac­tion, and even through their board lead­er­ship.

But ul­ti­mately, he says, creative power still rests with the artists.

‘‘ Cer­tainly, when you’re deal­ing with a form as col­lab­o­ra­tive and tem­po­ral as theatre, it’s just im­pos­si­ble for too heavy an in­flu­ence to come from that di­rec­tion. It all hap­pens in the re­hearsal room.’’ Many wealthy pa­trons, he says, still give freely with­out de­mands or re­quests.

It is im­por­tant, then, to re­it­er­ate the com­mon view of the past; artists, not bene­fac­tors, de­fine a na­tion’s cul­ture. ‘‘ We’re a very young na­tion and what’s been done in such a short time is prob­a­bly ex­tra­or­di­nary,’’ Cousins says.

‘‘ But I think with the boom we’ve gone through in the past decade, there is a great op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to ac­cept the ex­am­ples of some of those who have gone be­fore us in the cre­at­ing of en­dow­ments and bene­fac­tions.’’

As the bi­en­nale ap­proaches, the fi­nal ob­ser­va­tion be­longs to Kal­dor. As his co- bene­fac­tors fly out for a week of in­tense arts ex­pe­ri­ence he sees Aus­tralian cul­ture as the win­ner.

‘‘ Th­ese peo­ple will see the 77 na­tions, plus the other great shows, all ex­hibit­ing . . . and it will give them a very good idea of what con­tem­po­rary in­ter­na­tional art is.

‘‘ For them to be aware of what’s hap­pen­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally is very im­por­tant. It’s an evo­lu­tion, and rather than see­ing some­thing on the in­ter­net they see it on the spot.’’

Of the arts phi­lan­thropist, he says: ‘‘ I don’t think it’s a new phe­nom­e­non. With­out the Medi­cis there wouldn’t have been an arts scene in Florence.

‘‘ You al­ways need, I think, the pa­tron­age of some en­light­ened or­gan­i­sa­tion or in­di­vid­ual who makes it pos­si­ble for the art and artist to flour­ish.’’

It is a com­mon theme for arts pa­trons. Some do it be­cause the art is their pas­sion, some be­cause they want to in­flu­ence, oth­ers en­joy the par­ty­ing.

In the end, many say, mak­ing a dif­fer­ence cul­tur­ally is bet­ter than giv­ing your money to the tax man.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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