Two years ago, the word ‘philanthropy’ would have meant very little to many artists, particularly to those with emergent or experimental practices, however the way that we now think and talk about philanthropy has shifted. A combination of the recent rise of online crowdfunding platforms, high-profile philanthropic donations to public art institutions, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, and changes in government funding models, has seen philanthropy entering the artist’s vernacular. Arts philanthropy has also entered into the conversations with government: for the first time in twenty years, the Australian government is developing a National Cultural Policy and has identified the need for more support of the arts and culture, particularly from the private sector. As a precursor to this policy, a major review into private sector support for the arts was completed by Harold Mitchell in October of 2011.1 The objective of this review was to put forward recommendations to strengthen philanthropic donations to the arts in Australia, and to plan more effective ways for the arts, philanthropic and private sectors to work together.2
The recommendations detailed in the Mitchell Review will change the arts relationship to the private sector, and could signify a move towards state-organised private philanthropy with our government taking a more active role in administrating and overseeing private sector giving. It is the aim of this article to consider the place of the individual artist and Artist-Run Initiatives (ARIs) in light of the changing relationship between the arts and the private sector, and to consider the role of crowdfunding and in-kind philanthropy in relation to state-governed private philanthropy.
ARIs, not-for-profits and artists have been engaging in philanthropic exchanges for decades: the Australian art scene is built on in-kind support and the unpaid services of artists and arts workers, and private sector support such as volunteer board members and corporate sponsorship. Recently, the extensive media coverage of headline-grabbing donations has shifted the public focus of philanthropy to personal giving. Many are familiar with Simon Mordant’s notable public donation of $15 million to the redevelopment of the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2010. In America, an ‘exclusive club’ of multi-billionaires, who began to meet in 2009, have pledged to not only give 99% of their income to charity, but also to publicly ‘out’ fellow billionaires who don’t give.3 This ‘name and shame’ culture has lead to more wealthy people deciding to give in their lifetime, and more of them favoring donating to the arts for the networks and social benefits it can bring.4 Philanthropy has become more personal, and there is an increased awareness of the social and moral responsibility of the wealthy to give.
In recognition of this responsibility, the Mitchell Report recommends simplifying the processes of giving by implementing tax benefits and reducing ‘red tape’ in cultural gifting programs. An increase in government support for private philanthropy indicates a shift in the responsibility of funding of the arts. Is this push for private philanthropy a signifier of reduced government funding for the arts sector? Currently, the majority of our national and state funding goes to the performing arts and major cultural institutions; the same organisations and art forms that attract the largest personal donations. In an essay on Australian funding bodies, Marcus Westbury, founder of Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia, states his concern with government funding schemes that mainly support the performing arts and large cultural institutions: ‘cultural production that does not fit this model is largely unfunded and, more importantly, struggles to register in policy debates’.5 If government support and private philanthropy continues to flow to larger organisations, the emerging arts sector will be significantly disadvantaged. Currently individual artists receive only a small fraction of funding; the Australian Business Arts Fund (AbaF) reported that art galleries accounted for the largest share of private sector support, receiving $51 million, while multi-arts and visual arts, craft and design received $1 million and $2 million respectively.6 It is of concern if funding for the arts is bypassing the artist and going directly to the cultural institution.
In an interview with Phillip Keir, founder of the Keir Foundation — a grant-making foundation that supports emerging artists across art forms, Keir declared his belief that there ‘is considerable interest in giving donations to artists with emergent and experimental practices’, but that this is often surpassed by large art organisations with extensive development departments and specially trained staff skilled in raising philanthropic donations.7 Individual artists cannot compete with the larger arts organisations and their options for pursuing philanthropic funding have a number of drawbacks. Firstly, donations to individual artists are not tax deductible, and many ARIs are without deductible gift recipient status (DGR) — a major deterrent to prevent both from receiving philanthropic donations. According to the Mitchell Report, artists and ARIs are at a further disadvantage, in that donors are more likely to give to organisations that are already supported by government funding.8 This double handling demonstrates the urgent need for private donors to be introduced to different models of cultural production, rather than relying on the government’s ‘seal of approval’ of an organisation to fund. If ARIs are able to overcome these setbacks and gain philanthropic donations, it must not impact the work created and presented by these initiatives. The interest and understanding of this type of work is growing; private support for these initiatives should reflect a shared interest in emergent and experimental practises.
AbaF’s Cultural Fund is an important initiative that aims to realign the disadvantages between arts organisations and individual artists. This fund uses their unique DGR status to administer philanthropic donations to individual artists and ARIs in the form of grants, allowing donors to retain the benefits of tax offsets whilst delivering financial support to those without the official DGR status. Initiatives such as this demonstrate forward thinking and recognition of the dynamic and essential work being produced and presented outside of the major art galleries, museums and performing arts venues. Of the 138 artists seeking private support, very few could be classified as having an experimental practice, with the majority coming from a music background.9 Conversely, the AbaF assumes responsibility regarding which artists or opportunities receive funding, as it takes the donor’s ‘preference into consideration when making grants’.10 The responsibility of an organisation such as AbaF to distribute philanthropic funding is problematic. If the donor’s freedom of choice is restricted, the personal element of private giving is lost and the same system retains the power to decide who to give funds to. A move towards state-organised private philanthropy could be disadvantageous to artists and ARIs unless the government recognises the value of art in a way that doesn’t simplly cater to large-scale museum, gallery or stage models.
For individual artists and ARIs, crowdfunding is currently sustaining the funding void that the private sector is failing to fill. Better suited to emergent practices, crowdfunding, as Keir states, ‘by its nature works with innovation and so is in tune with new and emerging practices’.11 Though it is an innovative use of online media, crowdfunding platforms build hype and engagement into the fundraising campaign — they are as much about marketing and social engagement as they are about raising funds. Crowdfunding platforms, such as Pozible, operate as a business: they generally take 10% of the total funds raised. This means that although the relationship between artist and donor is mediated by a third party, it introduces individuals to a network of prospective donors and artists. The relationship created by these digital platforms is ongoing; donors to Pozible create a profile that enables them to track and support multiple projects. The success of crowdfunding is that it introduces people to philanthropic giving and donors to new works that are seeking funding, resulting in the creation of networked relationships that sustain a community of support.
This entrepreneurial element of crowdfunding is demonstrative of artists’ relationship to the current funding culture. Whether the funding source is government or philanthropic, artists make a ‘pitch’ for funding that considers the audience and the context, and they manage the funding and the making of the work with considerable risk. Artists are engaging in philanthropic and entrepreneurial culture in a very broad sense — Keir cites the example of Agatha Gothe-Snape’s Powerpoints 2008–12 (ongoing).^12 This series of unlimited edition digital works is ‘purchased as an entire series [which is] updateable with new works as the artist produces them, similar to a subscription’.13 Keir suggests that the nature of this work, being an unlimited edition that is purchased as a ‘virtual subscription’, engages in social philanthropy:
One could argue that there is a philanthropic impulse on the part of the purchaser in buying into the subscription of the work, as there is philanthropic social intent in the way the artist approaches their audience.^14
The marketing and sales approach to the Powerpoint series demonstrates an entrepreneurial approach that connects the sale of the work with philanthropic commitment. It marks a move to arts philanthropy that is self-sufficient, and not state-governed, and one that is particularly suited to experimental works that have a social dimension.
Marcus Westbury stresses that if we are going to review the philanthropic system, it must shift in favor of individual artists, not just arts organisations.15 ‘The Mitchell review must recognise that the momentum and the most interesting work is taking place away from the major arts companies.’16 What is needed is a reassessment of how we measure philanthropy in Australian culture. It is important to remember that volunteer and in-kind support share equal importance with large donations in order to present a realistic figure of philanthropic worth generated by artists and ARIs that is competitive with those of established arts organisations. In light of the development of a new National Cultural Policy, the government needs to realign the philanthropic strategies that validate only certain kinds of art through private-sector support. We need to reconceive philanthropy as being about democratic giving, not simply large monetary donations to major arts organisations. In this vein, artists and ARIs need continued support for small-scale and artist-led projects that might otherwise fail to register with funding bodies or private philanthropy, due to the strength of competition for the philanthropic dollar. State-administered philanthropy would be disadvantageous to some individual artists and ARIs as the systems currently in place do not effectively support private giving to individual artists. The Mitchell review identified numerous strategies to ‘maximise support from the private sector to drive the government dollar further’,17 and it is important to ensure that the dollar reaches artists and ARIs and not just institutions. Our National Cultural Policy needs to acknowledge the dynamic and important work being made in ARIs and by artists in order to diversify the landscape of private and government funding.
Amelia Wallin is a curator and writer, and co-director of Firstdraft, Sydney.