BtBA Day 3

Mid way point in the BtBA program and 13 events/meetings completed.

Today I was blown away by the intelligent and articulate Ben Cameron from the Doris Duke Foundation, visited the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, spent time with Donna Walker-Kuhne in her New Jersey Performing Arts Centre and returned to the Apollo for Wednesday Amateur Night. This time I will be more than happy to sit in the audience and let others access the stage.

The issue of cultural diversity was not as much a challenge for me today. The organisations we visited had both a reference and a stated responsibility to cultural diversity and a more articulated set of diversities in the strategic approach taken by these organisations.

The issue that was most prominent for me was the extent to which the arts in New York and more broadly the USA are supported by private money and philanthropy and the minimal role that government plays. The figures are arresting:

  • For the New Jersey Preforming Arts Centre (NJPAC) only $1million of its annual $40 million budget comes from government coffers, the rest is achieved through private philanthropy of 40% and 60% from ticket sales;
  • The National Endowment for the Arts distributes only $160 million annually;
  • The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council being the leading re-granter of money to both individual artists and to small arts organisations in the Lower Manhattan Borough only receives 20% of its money from the city and state governments. The rest is achieved through grant applications to Trusts and Foundations and private gifting.

Arts managers were equally stunned at the Australian reality in which the level of government subsidies for the arts are comparatively huge, especially when arts funding from the Federal and State/Territory governments is added to the budgets allocated for two public broadcaster’s and community broadcasters.

Numbers are rational but for me it has been the emotional response to the manifestation of this private philanthropy. Walls are covered with lists of sponsors and the amounts that they have donated. There are plaques on almost every physical asset in the performance spaces: chairs, bricks, foyer floors, and for the big donors the naming of theatres and facility rooms. This has been a challenge for me as the role of philanthropy and its public acknowledgement is part of the cultural DNA of this place. I would even go as far as feeling quite uneasy about it all. It is foreign to me. Perhaps I am feeling it more because it is only a minor part of Australian arts and cultural institutions.

I am also taken aback by a normative behaviour in this regard which everyone I have spoken to has shown comfort in affording unquestioned status and privileges to donors: special areas, preferential treatment and I would even go as far as speaking inreverential tones about them. Money speaks and big money speaks louder.

But the issue is probably far more nuanced that I am allowing. The fact is that the philanthropy and private gifting delivers significant resources to the arts and as such it is can be considered a good thing. Given the percentages I have quoted, without it there would not be an arts sector. But here is the thing: most gifting goes to NFP either from individuals, companies or Foundations and these gifts are tax deductible. In effect the government still pays through the foregoing of tax revenue. Again everyone is comfortable with this, but I still am not.

The problem with this privatised model is that it affords significant power to individuals with money to set the direction of the arts and how they are marketed and this is a risk. On a number of occasions informants spoke about the importance of getting donors who ‘get it’. That is, have an appropriate attitude that will support an organisations mission. What happens when they don’t or where the objectives do not include social outcomes such as social inclusion.

It is quintessential free market behaviour. The lack of significant government subsidies (read funding) decreases the power of the state to use its money to direct social outcomes such as greater equity and inclusion in the arts across all population groups. Not having this responsibility also removes a whole suave of advocacy and stakeholder relations headaches for the government.

So what is the risk? For me the risk is potentially failing to build the social bond through arts practice and interaction that will bring increasingly diverse communities together. For a community advocate the question also becomes, how do you lobby private donors and organisations to be fairer?

The answer is that you can’t argue the moral or principled high ground for greater equity. Invariably it becomes an economic argument which will require a greater a financial ‘return in investment’ approach. And in so doing there is a shift from art to commerce in which money will go to ethnic minorities but only where there is a commercial benefit to be had.

So I am discomforted but I remain in awe of the amounts that the people in the USA donate to the arts, the role of the arts in the community and an ongoing tension and debate around for to address this resource conundrum.

In Australian terms we need to acknowledge the role of government subsidies but we should also seek their leadership in promoting and supporting the arts so that there is greater prestige associated with arts philanthropy.

Would it be too much to ask to have both significant levels of government subsidies and private philanthropy?

Pino Migliorino