June 1, 2023

I’ve just finished teaching my last course on philanthropy and fundraising at the University of Melbourne. As an organised human being, my next task was to sort out what research material I’d used to create the course was worth keeping. In the tidy up, I discovered an edited version of a paper about private sector funding that I’d given at a seminar nearly 40 years ago. And this really is an example of the things that never change – either in the world or in my opinions.

The second sentence in the paper was this: All over the Western world….government budgets are being tightened and the arts budgets are cut. And that’s been an ongoing story for decades. Even with a supportive Federal Arts Minister in Australia at the moment with a slight improvement in funding for the arts, we’re all still recovering from cuts under the previous government.

I then went on to talk about some of the responses to this scenario – searching for new justifications for government arts funding, improving arts management, and finding other sources of funding such as corporate sponsorship. The seminar paper explored the rationale behind sponsorship, the arts companies/sectors that are attractive (and unattractive) to companies, the innate conservatism of such sponsorship, and various other constraints on private sector funding. Re-reading this document four decades on, there’s very little I’d change. These days, I’d add a more detailed section about the ethics of such relationships and reflect on stories where relationships have broken down due to pressure from artists (Tate/BP, Perth Festival/Chevron, British Museum/Shell, Sydney Biennale/Transfield).

I concluded my paper with this reflection about the need to determine whether the dream of private sector funding is a convenient point of distraction when public budgets are tight. Yes, I was clearly somewhat cynical in those days about sponsorship. We have moved beyond that point. Most large arts companies have no choice but to include corporate sponsorship as part of their funding mix. Most small to medium sized companies would like some corporate support but are usually limited to modest in kind contributions rather than meaningful cash amounts. And in both cases, philanthropy – from individuals and foundations – is a larger source of income than sponsorship. Even though it’s hard to know whether the source of that philanthropic income might be tainted (slavery? mining? armaments? tobacco?), it does feel slightly more comfortable to accept a donation than to enter into a commercial contract with a corporation.