Is There Really No Love for Art among Aussie Elite?

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Melbourne Art

September 11, 2014; Raven Contemporary Art

Australian art and film critic John McDonald has an opinion about why “the vast majority of wealthy people [in Australia] have no interest whatsoever in the arts.” He thinks that the typical Australian billionaire finds fulfillment “in watching yourself creep ever higher up the rich list.” Out of the nation’s 39 billionaires, only two, McDonald says, evince “a cast-iron commitment to art.”

“Philanthropy, which literally means ‘the love of humanity’, requires a degree of unselfishness that most of our business leaders do not possess,” McDonald observes. ‘Many executives seem to believe that ‘sponsorship’ must guarantee some kind of financial dividend otherwise it’s not worth doing.”

Perhaps fundraisers don’t do themselves any favors, given McDonald’s assertion that “Many donors, large and small, complain that they have been treated with rudeness or a lack of consideration.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if wealthy donors were truly motivated by “philanthropy” in its basic meaning? McDonald’s critique of the attitudes of Australia’s wealthy toward arts and culture might be extended to other areas of philanthropic support and other nations with alacrity. Are the wealthy of Australia—and the United States, for that matter—doing what they can and should for the sustenance of art institutions?

More fundamentally, are the world’s super-wealthy becoming more philanthropic or less?—Rick Cohen

  • John Godfrey

    The answer lies in John’s turn of phrase! Look down the occupations of the 39 and you’ll see mining and construction feature prominently. Far be it from me to stereotype these occupations but digging holes and building towers tend not to be the occupation of aesthetes and art lovers. However, I believe there are more than two billionaire famililes on the list that have made contributions to the arts. The two on the list I assume he refers to are the Pratts (Packaging) and Packers (Media and Gambling) who have made substantial contributions to arts over decades. There are one or two others whose contribution hasn’t been as significant I wouldn’t want your readers to think all of them are philistines.

  • John Godfrey

    The two whom McDonald mentions are are Kerry Stokes (media), a prolific collector and patron; and Kerr Neilson (finance), who funds Sydney’s White Rabbit contemporary art gallery. ” McDonald also lists a group of very wealthy not-quite billionaires who contribute outstandingly to the arts – the Balnaves (media), John Kaldor (fabric), Pat Corrigan (freight). Additionally friends have added to the list the late Elizabeth Murdoch (mother of Rupert), the Fairfax family, (another media owning family), the Myer family (Retail) and the Belgiorno-Nettis family (civil engineering – remember the Sydney Bienale controversy reported in NPQ earlier this year). And then there has been Mel Gibson giving to his former drama school, NIDA.

  • Fran Morris

    This view from John McDonald is an example of “wealthy bashing” which is happening in Australia. John argues a strong but narrow view. Every time I hear someone say ‘So and so should give more money. They are wealthy” I ask what they are giving. Philanthropy is up to all of us and most people I know are supporting charities or purposes which resonate with them, and/or volunteer.

    Back to the arts. John’s milieu is the largest galleries and he is probably thinking about artist patronage. But you need to look at the general population and its engagement before giving a view on ‘the arts’.

    Statistically, more people participate in ‘the arts’ (galleries, museums, concerts, shows etc) than sporting events in Australia. And we are known as sports crazy! .

    In my view, Australia’s robust arts environment is a result of two long-term development factors; 1. the strong accountability required by the Federal Government’s Australia Council and State Ministries of Arts for those organisations which have accepted grants. They insisted on discipline and prudent management. 2. a lack of lazy focus on getting donations from ‘the wealthy’! This made boards of arts organisations plan well and work hard.

    There’s never enough easy money and that’s the way it will stay. As the song tells: When the going gets tough, the tough get going…

  • Paul Jenkins

    …And with the top 1% of the rich now controlling 50% of the worlds total wealth, they will be playing an ever increasing role if (if) they continue to think philanthropically. One must hope so.