Patronage of the arts in Australia

Patronage of the arts in Australia
is divided haphazardly between government, philanthropic trusts and private individuals.

Major arts organisations in Australia are increasingly dependent on government funds and corporate sponsorship. Corporate sponsorship, needed and appreciated as it is, is not the same as patronage.

A commercial sponsor rightly expects, and gets, a commercial reward for sponsorship funds. This is generally in the form of targetted advertising, corporate entertaining, and the prestige of good corporate citizenship.

This form of arts funding should not be confused with patronage. Ideally, the patron receives no return on their generosity, beyond the satisfaction of knowing they have helped an artist or group in a material way. The ultimate satisfaction is the knowledge that you have helped a particular artist reach success which, but for the support, they would not have been able to reach.

The need for patronage of the arts in Australia is plain. Most Australian artists (by which I mean creative and performing artists in all categories of the arts) occupy the lowest income group in Australia. All but the very established and most successful artists in Australia earn in the order of $15,000 – $20,000 per year. The poverty line is about $30,000. Artists survive by teaching, or washing dishes, or on the help of friends or relatives.

If the health of a society is to be judged by the condition of its artists, Australian society has some major problems.

The reason for this is that existing forms of support for the Arts in Australia are inadequate. Additional government funding is a pious hope: there are not many votes in the Arts.

Corporate sponsorship is increasingly drifting to popular art forms, or away from Arts altogether in favour of sport – more bangs for the sponsorship dollar.

Private philanthropy is, to say the least, an underdeveloped idea in Australia. There are some notable exceptions. However, we have no cultural tradition of provate philanthropy in the Arts.

This is probably a function of 3 things: first, it is generally thought to be the province of the super-rich, which provides a ready-made excuse for those of more modest resources. Second, it has an air of elitism about it which is thought to be un-Australian. Third, it does not readily attract tax-deductible status, which would otherwise make a contribution easier, especially for those who are not super-rich, but pay 50% of their income in tax.

The solution, I think, is to encourage private philanthropy among those who are comfortable rather than rich. As much good can be achieved by a large number donating a modest amount as by an exclusive few donating large amounts.

Philanthropy at this level can only be achieved by:
encouraging a culture of support for the Arts,
educating middle Australia to recognise the appalling circumstances in which many talented artists work;
persuading Governments to encourage philanthropy;
bringing individual patrons into contact with individual artists, so they see at first hand the talent and the need: people give to people more readily than they give to causes or ideas.

The purpose of this short essay is to provoke others to think about the problem, and look for solutions. I am sure that my modest proposals can be improved and supplemented. If you have any ideas about new ways to fund the arts, let me know.

Read Tim Rowse’s discussion in Arguing the Arts.