A thread that binds society together
Words by Paola Anselmi
A society grows great when men plant tres whose shade they know they will never sit in
- Greek Proverb
The concept of the patron in the arts is crucial to an overall understanding of the arts; with the advent of civilization it has always existed in one form or another. Originating in Roman times, the close relationship between the patron and his client, often foremost for political gain and position, evolved into a Renaissance model, when artists were afforded protection, sponsorship and commissions by various nobles and merchants. In this period the patron/client bond was predicated on mutual engagement. This understanding of patronage and philanthropy translated into contemporary times suggests a relationship not exclusively based on money but direct involvement, the giving of time, pro-bono work or volunteering, founded on the social responsibility of giving something back, based on personal circumstances. Patronage and philanthropy should be transformative for both the donor and the recipient organisation or individual.
The Schapper Bequest is an example of how a personal gift to a community can have diverse ramifications that not only engender a spirit of cooperation, but also lay the foundations for its future development. Initially a single bequest that proposed a national competition for a public artwork in Bridgetown, it was subsequently split by the bequest holders to include public art commissioning funds for local South West artists from the Bridgetown area. The national competition was won by Sydney artist Damien Butler, who, conscious of the importance of giving back to the local community and the flow on effects of public art projects, has used local knowledge, skills and materials in the creation of the work. This bequest of a public art fund to the Shire instigated the development of a Public Art Strategy to ensure a considered program. Overall, the Schapper Bequest has had radical effects, it has delivered national focus, local engagement, a policy outcome and a strong cultural engagement between patron, artist, community and governing bodies.
We are defined by our creative and cultural environments, our little patch, our surroundings, so why does it often seem so complicated to engender a sense of community fostering and long term giving? Part of the issue may be unsuitable measuring cycles on the return for investment. I don’t believe a cultural ‘return’ can be easily measured in classifiable and restrictive one, two or five year cycles. Philosophically we should be investing in 20 year or 50 year cycles, fostering the idea of investing in a cultural legacy.
The Myer Foundation1 is a successful example of untied support, an investment into the future of an individual’s creative practice and therefore that of the sector, not requiring a direct time or project based return. Marco Marcon was the recipient of a 2012 Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship for his commitment to IASKA and Spaced; continually readdressing the program’s scope and possibilities to ensure its contemporary relevance in a changing cultural landscape and increasing its public engagement. The Foundation’s aims are underpinned by a belief in the importance of sustainability, creativity and prosperity. These are visionary aims that have translated into a new approach to investing, with the firm belief that culture changes perception and therefore the world in which we operate, and that fundamentally, a diverse and confident society is predicated on a strong cultural framework.2
Philanthropy is not a millionaire’s game. It is certainly easier for a business executive to hand over money rather than time; financial donations are tax deductible and the important publicity machine will always make mileage of the million-dollar handshake. However, those who give their time and skill rather than large sums of money are for the most part the silent majority, and although civic giving spaces such as crowdfunding sites are changing traditional perceptions of cashed-up donors, those who offer other resources remain the silent backbone of all cultural industries.
Many arts organisations, large and small, must deal with short-term economic imperatives to maintain their operations. These include a lack of promotional opportunities and human, operational and production resources – the quick fix, year by year, or at best, triennium grants or sponsorship, have become the norm for survival. It seems that arts organisations, broadly speaking, have not been well equipped with the knowledge and strategies to address a considered and tactical pursuit for patrons, given the daily grind of keeping afloat.
This is where organisations such as Giving West and Creative Partnerships Australia can play an important advisory and collaborative role, providing the backing and support to facilitate lasting holistic relationships between business and the arts. They need to do this without debasing the Government’s social and fiscal responsibilities, but rather by building on them. Giving West was established in 2011 following a research project titled, A Rising Tide? Exploring the Future of Giving in Western Australia, funded by Lotterywest and conducted by Professor Margaret Seares. The report identified a gap in WA’s cultural giving landscape, which included the need to provide information, education and connections to people and organisations that may be willing to give, and to assist them to make sound decisions. Giving West’s reach stretches from establishing an online service called WA Giving Hub, to a direct hands-on engagement to raise Western Australia’s comparatively poor rate of patronage to that of the rest of the country. It also seeks to inspire more of the state’s wealthiest to dig deeper, or better still…to start digging.
Under the newly launched Creative Australia National Cultural Policy (2013), AbaF and Artsupport amalgamated into Creative Partnerships Australia (CPA). This new incarnation is extending the previous services to facilitate new funding models such as crowd sourcing or funding and matched government funding. The website seems loosely built on the crowdfunding model but unlike most arts crowdfunding sites there are no listed benefits for donors. It provides a diverse mix of event driven projects as well as programs and professional development, salaries and touring.
Matched support can comport as many pitfalls as potential. Should patrons and donors who have financial liquidity be able to dictate what creative and social needs should be prioritised? Does money equate to authority in determining the future direction of the sector? To what level does and will benefaction dictate current and future policy? What is understood is that support must be a shared responsibility and this is how we seem to be progressing nationally, but the cultural community must remain in the driver’s seat.
On a smaller scale, but not less important, civic donor spaces and crowdfunding sites, such as Pozible or KickStarter can work well but only in so far as we understand them to be funding short term goals, projects and events and not as a possible replacement for government funding or large scale visionary philanthropic investment. Crowdfunding has made a definite mark in the evolution of the cultural industry but it is still fraught with teething problems and I do not believe that we fully understand the future implications, positive and negative, of this new Pandora’s box. The clear issue remains that without direct engagement there is little chance that people who do not know the artist will support the project, and the more niche, the more difficult. No amount of benefits will engage an uninitiated audience, which leads me back to the idea that detached patronage is not sustainable overall.
Undeniably the most successful, lasting patronage projects seem to be the simplest.
There have been a number of groups in WA who have created new patronage models from scratch. In 1996 the late John Stringer started the Collector’s Club, a small group of like-minded people, some of whom already had caught the collecting bug and newbies alike, coming together to promote the visual arts in WA through informed collecting.
In 2001 Helen Turner, Director of the Church Gallery, now Turner Galleries, began a highly successful and ongoing program called the Art Angels. This is a membership group whose fees are wholly dedicated to the promotion of the visual arts through residencies and acquisitions. Over a decade, and with an average of 40 members, the program has contributed over $500,000 to artists and importantly has created an evolving national network of artistic exchange and professional development.
The now wound-up Mark Howlett Foundation led the way for a new initiative along similar lines, The Syndicate. The aim is simple; support the artist. It was set in motion by businessman and avid collector Lloyd Horn, who understood the importance of giving mid-career sculptors the opportunity to develop their practice, free of the creative compromise that often accompanied sculptural commissions. The program affords important financial certainty without constraints for the duration of the commission. The time frame is not important and there’s no obligation for the artist to refrain from other activities such as teaching, part or full time work or holding an exhibition during the commission period.
Programs like these touch upon a fundamental point, they sustain while ensuring there are as few caveats and restrictions to the artist to make the patronage meaningful.
Grass-roots patronage and philanthropy is a thread that binds a society together, creating a strong culture based on respect and understanding. It’s a direct confirmation of the worth of someone’s vision, trust in their ability, a respect for their commitment to their practice and acceptance of the occasional side step. This is true for an individual or an organisation. While money is essential, community is too. We must not forget that the arts are largely self-funded; we are our biggest funding source and our own biggest investors.
Paola Anselmi is a Perth-based freelance curator, arts writer and public art consultant who contributes to Australian arts publications, magazines and has written numerous exhibition catalogue texts. Paola has held a range of curatorial and research roles, and undertaken numerous public and private collection development projects.
This article featured in the Artsource Newsletter, Winter 2013.