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The donor dilemma: philanthropy and the arts

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The donor dilemma: philanthropy and the arts


According to Sarah Morgan, past board member of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Linden New Art in St Kilda, this is a concern. “It’s a much more sophisticated environment. Donors are more demanding about what they want, what they’ll give, and what is done with their money. And it costs a great deal to do this properly.”

Even for arts organisations able to afford it, recruiting a professional fundraiser isn’t easy. “If you want the best fundraisers, you’re competing with other sectors,” Menzies says. “But there’s a struggle with the idea – one that I sympathise with – that an effective fundraiser is paid more than a senior curator. And you don’t see dividends without a significant investment of time and money, so it’s not seen as core business by many cultural institutions.”

Director of the National Gallery of Australia Nick Mitzevich says he loves talking about philanthropy. “It’s one of my favourite subjects because it’s how things happen!” He is that most elusive of creatures: the donor-whisperer. His ability to engage supporters is legendary, and he offers sage advice. “I nurture a sense of intimacy that isn’t corporate,” he says. “The community you build makes a difference. And you can’t rush it.”

Boardrooms full of older men are the wet blanket of exciting cultural planning.

Venice Biennale Council chair Kerry Gardner

For organisations not lucky enough to have a Mitzevich equivalent at the helm, reduced government funding means rocky days ahead. “It threatens the health of the arts ecosystem,” Morgan says. “Of course there should be a healthy tension around funding. But we still need spaces for emerging artists. And they need organisational funding from government to keep the doors open. Private donors won’t pay electricity bills.”

JB Were’s 2018 Support Report showed the fall in government funding has, until now, been matched by private donations. But it also revealed there are fewer donors, and that they are giving more in total.

That places cultural institutions in a dilemma. Do they risk donor fatigue by constantly hitting up tried-and-true supporters? Or should they look to new backers? Attracting a new generation of supporters is a matter of survival for all Australian arts bodies – and it will be a challenge. According to the US-based Johnson Centre for Philanthropy, younger philanthropists are drawn to animal welfare, the environment, and social activism rather than the cultural causes supported by their parents and grandparents. Menzies believes there’s a similar trend here.

National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich, dubbed a 'donor whisperer'. 

National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich, dubbed a ‘donor whisperer’. Credit:Sagi Biderman

Chair of Australia’s Venice Biennale Council Kerry Gardner doesn’t see an inherent clash between these competing interests. “Cultural democracy, a term I borrow from [Australian arts philanthropist] Rupert Myer, sits very comfortably with social issues,” she says. “Young people are the lifeblood of this thinking.”

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Gardner also knows how to keep cultural organisations relevant. “Have younger leaders on their boards and more diversity in senior management,” she advises. “Boardrooms full of older men are the wet blanket of exciting cultural planning.”

In a report for Philanthropy Australia, Clare Ainsworth Herschell, founder of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ young patrons’ group Atelier, painted a bleak future if arts organisations fail to engage this new constituency.

“What Millennials do not value they will not protect,” she wrote. “And what they do not protect they risk losing for generations to come.”

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