When it was founded in the early 1970s the Australia Council had a touching faith in the value of the arts to transform life, to lead people to a better understanding of themselves in a cultural renaissance. The AbaF (Australian Business Foundation for the Arts) is very much a creature of today’s cultural values. It encourages businesses to support the arts as they can ‘offer inspiration for your staff, opportunities to demonstrate your commitment to the community, great networking, a creative edge for marketing and unique branding options.’
The AbaF has two initiatives whereby its members assist the arts. This assistance is in kind, but is costed for internal bookkeeping purposes. AdviceBank matches business volunteers with arts projects that can benefit from their particular expertise. Small arts organisations, especially in Victoria where AbaF is based, have benefited from members’ marketing expertise.
A second initiative is BoardBank, where the AbaF links members who would like to join the boards of cultural organisations with those looking for general business expertise. Despite the rhetoric, it is really only small arts organisations that need this kind of help. Major arts organisations have no problem attracting close personal friends of Prime Ministers or Premiers to their boards. Significantly, although there has been some help from IT professionals, most of the expertise being added is in marketing.
Thanks to Bartholomew Rose
There are two sides to this story. First there are the values and governing principles of the AbaF itself, but closely linked with this is the way in which these values are beginning to impact on the administration of Australia’s creative cultures.
Building Relationships & Securing Donations: A guide for the arts, is available as a stand-alone publication, but is also the support material for a seminar on the same topic. The two-day seminar, with half-day back-up, costs $250. It is not a part of any accredited training package. The book is a one-dimensional outline of basic fundraising strategies, familiar to those with any background in arts or fundraising. It is a description of process rather than ethos, excellent support material for corporate style PowerPoint presentations.
This and other AbaF publications are predicated on one central assumption – that the corporate model is the only way to go. When the lack of mutual approach was raised with Kathy Keele, AbaF’s recently appointed Executive Director, she indicated two positive inputs from the arts to business: ‘presentation skills’ and a trial program linking orchestral conducting to management.
The AbaF appears not to have noticed recent research, most recently Richard Florida’s The Flight of the Creative Class: the New Global Competition for Talent. Florida writes from a hard-nosed economist’s perspective which understands that money is not the main driver for talent, and that business can learn a great deal from creativity. This is especially true of small arts organisations where there is no money to spare. The arts are good at living mean – of using style instead of income.
They are also good at fostering esprit de corps, and encouraging ensemble management, rather than a hierarchical structure. In successful small arts organisations, the junior worker can have policy input simply because she has some ideas. They are able to do this because the arts run on passion not inflated salary packages and expense accounts.
Australian businesses could learn a great deal from the ingenuity of Elizabeth Ann McGregor at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the way her passion and ingenuity brought income and life to cutting edge Australian museum practice. The University of Melbourne’s Asialink manages to be innovative without an inflated staff structure.
In terms of management style, few business gurus could go past John Kirkman, now Director of the Joan Sutherland Cultural Centre. Kirkman was the inaugural Director of Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre and has carried his flying Fruit Fly Circus ensemble management to every institution he has run.
Then there is Sarah Miller who runs PICA in Western Australia with infinitely more dash than cash. All staff are valued. All contribute. Hierarchical management is a luxury the arts can’t afford. The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and other advocacy groups know how to draw connections and create networks without providing grand dinners or high profile social occasions.
The corporate ethos of the AbaF certainly has influenced arts management in recent years. The recent restructure of the Australia Council looks surprisingly top heavy. It is a reversal of the Council’s traditional focus on those who make art. Brochures and websites are being redesigned to suit the new ethos.
The Australian Cultural Fund, an AbaF innovation with the most potential to help small arts organisations, is the one that has many large arts bodies nervous. Many small organisations struggle with the administrative and legal processes that make it possible for donors to give tax-deductible gifts. Since the 1970s, when the Whitlam Government changed taxation laws for gifts of cash, and the Fraser Government amended them for gifts in kind, large arts organisations have been able to receive significant private support.
The Australian Cultural Fund is an umbrella receiving point – a device to enable tax deductible gifts to go to small not for profit arts bodies and/or individual arts practitioners. It is not a case of the AbaF allocating grants. Rather:
where the donor decides to proceed with a gift to the Fund, they will make the donation to the Fund, and write to AbaF expressing their preference for the particular cultural organisation or arts practitioner (AbaF Australian Cultural Fund brochure. April 2004)
In its structure and operation the Cultural Fund is based on the Elizabethan Theatre Trust which, from the 1950s until the 1970s, was the only way to give tax deductible donations to the arts (Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust papers. National Library of Australia ms 5908.). However, the entry of this very efficient vehicle has the potential to divert funds from major arts organisations.
Most sensitive of all is the way in which the AbaF is now linking its Sydney-based operations to the Australia Council. Artsupport Australia is a joint initiative with the Australia Council. The two wings, public funding for the arts and corporate sponsorship, are drawing ever closer together. According to the Australia Council’s Annual Report 2003-04:
Artsupport Australia in its first year of operation successfully implemented key strategies to increase cultural philanthropy. It has developed strong alliances in the arts, business and philanthropic sectors and the media. Achievements include donations of over $300,000 to arts organisations; promotion of the Australia Cultural Fund, an instrument of AbaF, which has processed tax deductible donations of more than $200,000 for artists and arts organizations
There is no reason businesses should not connect with the arts. Indeed there is every indication that those business people who have a long and passionate involvement in the arts and creativity have flourished because they understand it is a two-way street. The arts do need to talk the language of business, but an MBA is not known for teaching lateral thinking or creative solutions. Both business and arts can learn from each other.
But award dinners and pre-packaged seminars are probably not the best way to start a dialogue.
Australian Business for the Arts Foundation: Promoting Private Sector Arts Support. Click here for the Pdf.
Richard Florida, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent, Harper Business, 2005.
Australia Council management. Click here.
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