Philanthropy, Sponsorship, or Dinner?


On July 29 of this year the Prime Minister, John Howard, was guest of honour at the annual Australian Business Foundation for the Arts (AbaF) Awards Dinner. According to the Sydney Morning Herald this is ‘the one arts event the Prime Minister makes a point of attending’.

The chance of a meal with the Prime Minister with the bonus of meeting and networking with high flying colleagues is enough to make any corporation pay for a seat at the table. A fringe benefit is being labelled a philanthropist for utilising good business practice. ‘I think the awards have helped to spotlight really good trends in the community,’ says Kathy Keele, AbaF’s recently appointed Executive Director. ‘They have shown the arts new ways to partner. Every year it gets more competitive.’

The 2005 winners, announced in late July, are the partnership of Singapore Airlines and Art Exhibitions Australia. It is right that Singapore be publicly praised for its many years of sponsoring international exhibitions. Likewise David Gonski, Lyndon Terracini and Harold Mitchell should also be thanked for their long-term personal commitment to arts support. Indeed both Gonski and Mitchell have already been awarded the Order of Australia and Terracini has two honorary doctorates.

Thanks to Bartholomew Rose

Thanks to Bartholomew Rose

However the exercise of thanking again the arts benefactors is transformed into a ‘smoke and mirrors’ illusion by the pretence that the linkage of business and the arts is fostered by the host of the dinner. It could indeed be argued that the AbaF is best described as a beneficiary of their award winners’ philanthropy.

The Sydney Morning Herald may describe the list of nominees as ‘a record number of innovative arts support partnerships’, but most of the names listed on the AbaF website are well-known to the arts. Qantas, Singapore Airlines, BHP and News Limited have supported the arts since before the 1980s. Perpetual Trustees has as a part of its core business the administration of philanthropic bequests. This year, at least, none of the winners look like repeating the unfortunate experience of 2004 when the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Cultural Leadership Award was given to Graeme Murphy. The next year the Sydney Dance Company suffered a deficit of $600,000 (out of a total budget of $1.56 million). Murphy’s consistent innovation and creative leadership certainly deserved an award, but money may have been more constructive than a gong.

The awards and dinners represent the notion that business people enjoy an opportunity to network, and those participating in the arts like to eat. Networking at dinner provides an ideal opportunity for members and supporters to meet each other in a pleasant context. Most importantly, the networking skills of the business supporters of the AbaF can give access to higher levels of government and even major donors. This should not matter for major arts organisations – most of these could write the definitive guide to networking.

So why do they enter the awards?

The obvious reason is that all the arts are hungry for support, and no one can afford to pass up an opportunity to lobby. But there is now emerging an underlying fear that the AbaF is siphoning off the major arts organisations’ traditional sponsors, and unless the big cultural groupings join, they will lose out. The presence of established arts supporters at their events will make it even harder for the AbaF to prove they have led to a substantial increase in business support for the arts.

Thanks to Bartholomew Rose

Thanks to Bartholomew Rose

The AbaF was established in 2000, with annual funding of $1.16 million, as ‘a company of the Australian Government’ funded by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. It is a direct descendent of the Australian Foundation for Culture & Humanities Ltd, created in 1995 as a consequence of Paul Keating’s Creative Nation. This first incarnation was not a success. The AbaF was helped in its resurrection by the active support of business people well known for their support in the arts, including Richard Pratt, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Tony Berg, and Janet Holmes à Court.

The Councillors and the Board include many of those best described as ‘the usual suspects’ – well-connected arts supporters who can, by their very presence encourage others to give. According to Kathy Keele, the AbaF has seen an expansion of business support for the arts. However, she does not have evidence of this. ‘We need to collect the research,’ she says. There was one research project undertaken in 2001. This showed not only no increase in support for the arts from business since 1995, but also that the arts were disadvantaged compared to sport.

There was also an expectation on the part of business as to what they would receive in terms of benefit. They mean thereby not only enhancing corporate reputation and standing, but also delivering benefits throughout the business and underscoring core values of the corporation. Achieving market or employment advantages is often an accompanying aim in cultural sponsorships.

The essence of this report deals with communications and the cultural barriers of expectation between the arts and business. This may be why the AbaF has subsequently concentrated on teaching those in the arts to speak the language of corporations, to think as business does, on smooth hierarchical lines.

One problem facing the AbaF, one that is not solved by its latest publication, Building Relationships & Securing Donations: A Guide of the Arts, is the conflation of sponsorship with philanthropy. For the record, they are not the same. Philanthropy is giving without any expectation of personal financial benefit. Sponsorship is best described as image advertising which may or may not involve networking.

There is nothing wrong with sponsorship. The MCA could not afford free admission without the support of sponsorship of Telstra. No major art exhibition could travel this country without the sponsorship of airlines. Media outlets use arts sponsorship to soften their image, and to attract an elite audience. Paying $10,000 to have dinner with the Prime Minister is sponsorship, not philanthropy.

By way of contrast, the Bushells Foundation, which does not allow recipients to publicly thank them, are philanthropists. Brian Sherman, whose charity, Voiceless, has nothing to do with his business interests, is a philanthropist. James Fairfax and his sister, the late Caroline Simpson, are philanthropists.

Sponsorship makes the donor look generous, and it also provides an indirect (but still quantifiable) advertising return. This motivation is one reason the arts do well as a recipient of largesse. Art exhibitions, theatre and dance are more photogenic than the poor.

According to AbaF’s The Red Book:

They [businesses]expect their core business strategies and commercial objectives to drive their involvement with the cultural sector, and in general are only willing to invest funds in opportunities where there are identifiable business benefits. Many corporations say they are keen to do the right thing, and be seen to be doing so; but they still want their investment in community initiatives to be of strategic benefit to the corporation in some way.

This article is the first half of an article published in Artlink, the second half will appear in the next edition of New Matilda.

STIRRING Artlink’s September issue will be launched on Saturday 10 September at 4.30pm at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery, College of Fine Arts, corner Oxford St & Greens Rd, Paddington.
Julie Owens Labor Member for Parramatta will speak, as well as artist Michael Goldberg who is one of the artists in the exhibition /Disobedience/ which is on in the Ivan Dougherty Gallery.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.