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Public spending on arts and culture is higher than ever, but it’s not keeping up with Australia’s growing population. Is philanthropy the answer?

By Peter Barrett

In April, Lindsay Fox and his wife Paula made headlines when they gave $100 million to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) to build a new contemporary art gallery. The largest gift for a capital program ever made to an Australian art museum by a living donor was widely praised for its generosity and scope.

But for some it also threw a spotlight on a serious problem in the Australian arts and culture sector. “Philanthropy has to be there in the absence of really visionary or even sustained funding from the federal government,” was University of Melbourne professor of contemporary art and former NGV curator Charles Green’s take in The Guardian Australia.

The professor’s scathing view on funding is backed up by recent research. A 2019 report by independent think tank A New Approach says although government funding for arts and culture peaked in 2017-18, it has not kept up with population growth, dropping by 4.9 per cent per capita over the past decade and falling below the OECD average.

The new federal Labor government is showing promising early signs of its commitment to the arts, entertainment and cultural sectors, set to deliver its “landmark” National Cultural Policy by the end of the year.

In the meantime, with the future of the arts still uncertain, it’s timely to question whether donations like the Fox’s prove that philanthropy is ready to ‘step up’ and fill the funding void—and if so, what that would mean for artists.

How can we future-proof a sector that entertains us, challenges our thinking, promotes innovation and social cohesion, and ultimately shapes our national identity?

In the US arts economy, philanthropy is king. “There isn’t a robust level of government support at all,” says Vallejo Gantner, an Australian producer, cultural entrepreneur and Manhattan resident of 17 years. The former artistic associate of the Melbourne Festival and director of Performance Space New York (P.S. 122) has spent many years helping artists from Australia and around the world tour and put on shows there.

Once on the board of the Myer Foundation, which has championed international activity, Gantner now sits on other philanthropic boards supporting international exchange. “One of the beautiful things about the American system is that people take responsibility for the organisations they want to support. They understand that if they’ve got the means they’ve got the responsibility to do something. And that’s incredible. In Australia, that doesn’t happen often enough,” he adds.

While this model works well for big US galleries and other domestic art institutions, Gantner notes that well-established touring pathways for Australian artists have deteriorated over the past decade due to a lack of public funding.

“The de-prioritisation of artistic activity as the valid expression of cultural identity globally— from government particularly—has meant that level of engagement and support isn’t there anymore. It’s not cheap to bring in Australian works, so it needs that kind of support.”

Back in Australia, with public funding of arts and culture declining against population growth, artists and institutions are targeting the private and philanthropic sector to stay afloat.

Shamal Dass, head of Family Advisory and Philanthropic Services at JBWere, has been advising high net worth clients for nearly 20 years. He says Australia’s well-established system of tax deductibility to registered charities was significantly boosted when private ancillary funds (PAFs) were introduced in 2001. “It allowed those people to start setting up their own private foundations and then fund for multi-year periods, for decades and sometimes for much longer, out of their own foundation.”

Interestingly, this encourages Australia’s philanthropic community—who are generally younger than in other markets—to donate to charities in their lifetime, making them more active players in terms of where the money goes.

Philanthropy in Australia is growing too. Data compiled recently by JBWere for the Australian Financial Review Philanthropy 50 list shows high net worth individuals and corporations gave $964 million in 2020-21, double the amount recorded when the list began six years ago.

On the other hand, Dass points out that the Australian tax system has an inherent “organisational bias”, so arts sector donations tend to go to institutions rather than individual artists. “You don’t get a tax incentive for just supporting an artist down the road,” he says. “It’s great to fund a building. But is there a young Albert Namatjira in an Indigenous community that’s not getting funding to create amazing, powerful art?”

Few artists or organisations rely solely on philanthropic funding. Arts income streams are diverse and include things like box office and artwork sales, merchandise, and fundraising drives. Since 2013, Creative Partnerships Australia has been the Australian Government’s ‘one-stop-shop’ for artists and creatives, with a focus on building the arts sector’s capacity for fundraising.

As well as two matched funding programs (for organisations and individuals), the organisation provides advice and support through mentoring programs. Its CEO Fiona Menzies says she has seen significant improvements over the past decade, particularly in larger arts organisations. “Even a lot of the smaller organisations now have a dedicated arts fundraiser,
or an executive director who knows a lot more about fundraising than they would
have in the past.”

The body also administers the Australian Cultural Fund, which allows registered
artists to receive tax deductible donations directly from art lovers. In coming months, CPA will be rolled into the Australia Council for the Arts by the new federal government. “This will bring private sector expertise back into the Australia Council, making it stronger, and reaffirming its role as the premier arts funding body in Australia,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.

Other mechanisms incentivising art philanthropy include the Cultural Gifts Program (making donations of artworks tax deductible) and the Register of Cultural Organisations (granting arts organisations tax deductibility status).

Meanwhile, the lines between public and private funding are increasingly blurring. In what it claims is the most significant cultural development in the city since the opening of the Sydney Opera House, the $344 million Sydney Modern Project will open in December. The Art Gallery of NSW transformation happened thanks to $244 million in NSW Government funding and more than $100 million in private donations.

Interestingly, over in Perth, senior curator at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) Clothilde Bullen says there has been a “massive decrease” in philanthropic and corporate donors seeking naming rights. “I think what we’re seeing is that the naming rights aren’t as important as the media attention and the leverage that can come out of it.”

Shamal Dass
Peter Freedman
Hannah Fox

Group support is also on-trend, she says, citing the example of 10 women (not seeking media attention) who pooled funds to help the gallery buy important works by female artists. Happily, she is also seeing plenty of donations for behind-the-scenes conservation and research work, particularly in Indigenous art.

Bullen, a Wardandi and Badimaya woman with more than 28 years’ curatorial experience, also heads up AGWA’s Indigenous program. She lobbied hard for game-changing Commonwealth legislation in 2007 that put the brakes on buying Indigenous art as a tax write-off. She says although plenty of investors were unhappy at the time, the reform normalised art prices and addressed the growing and insidious practice of “carpet bagging”, where Indigenous artists were forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions, churning out works that made only their handlers rich.

Bullen says today, the First Nations art market—worth a quarter of a billion dollars—is still controlled by non-First Nations people. She hopes by placing First Nations art and artists into the first tier of its National Cultural Policy, the Australian Government is on the right track to changing that. “Embedding [the arts] at the heart of what national identity means is absolutely critical, because we’re a nation that [has] so much cultural cringe. And that needs to shift before we shift legislation.”

Back in Melbourne, co-artistic director of Rising Festival, Hannah Fox, says organisations like hers benefit most from a mix of legacy giving (which brings stability and certainty over longer periods) and everyday, direct support.

 “I think there needs to be more focus on small gifts, as well as the high end, to be able to really broaden the pool of giving to arts and culture. That requires quite a different approach and a different kind of psychology.”

Clothilde Bullen
Vallejo Gantner
Fiona Menzies

She is also excited and inspired by philanthropists who want to make things happen that otherwise just wouldn’t be possible. “That’s very much what we’re in the business of: trying to make extraordinary artistic experiences for the public in unusual settings.”

Festivals like Rising serve as a reminder that art and culture isn’t simply an elite pursuit, either. In another report by A New Approach, ‘baby boomer middle Australians’ overwhelmingly valued arts, culture and entertainment, busting the myth that all Aussies care about is sport.

One Australian whose passion for art and culture is beyond doubt is Peter Freedman, owner of Røde Microphones. Freedman recently gave Sydney Festival a no-strings-attached $5 million donation, the largest in the festival’s history, explaining that because his business did well during the pandemic he wanted to give back.

“I thought it was incumbent on me to share as much as I can; to step up, basically. The arts doesn’t get funding the way it should,” he says. His donation was also designed to encourage other people, wealthy or otherwise, to follow suit. “There are a million things you can do. Even just supporting up-and-coming artists by buying their works. The key to it is to do something that you’re interested in.”