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
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.
‘‘ 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.