July 8, 2014


By Matthew Westwood

Artists and their friends will not have failed to notice the rapidly shifting dynamics of arts funding in this country. In the next month or so, the Australia Council for the Arts will publish its new strategic plan and grants model, intended to be more responsive to novel ideas and practice.

It follows a 2012 review of the agency that identified plains of “unfunded excellence”, meaning artists whose work was formally excluded from more strictly defined funding streams.

At the same time, governments are increasingly leaning on the private sector to supplement state subsidy: the first Coalition budget in May revised down Australia Council funding from $218.7 million to $211.7m. The biggest arts companies — those with the largest artist payroll and audience share — are likely to be affected less by these changes than independent artists. How the new funding model plays out won’t be fully known until the first new-look grants are awarded next year.

So it is encouraging — and in many cases inspiring — when private money takes the initiative to support individual artists.

Private philanthropy is like the venture capital of arts funding. It seeks opportunities for investment, is moved by passion and entrepreneurial instinct rather than policy outcomes, and its effects can be rapid and transformative. Witness the recent work of some philanthropic families in the cultural sphere, such as the Mordants in Sydney, the Wheelers in Melbourne and the Forrests in Perth.

An interesting dimension of philanthropy is the way its acts of benefaction may resemble or differ from the state subsidy system. Private foundations may choose to offer support through discretionary grants or a competitive round of applications.

They may free themselves from the bureaucratic acquittal process that many artists find an onerous aspect of public grants. And bodies such as the Keir Foundation and the Sidney Myer Fund say they can be more nimble than government funding agencies, better able to respond to opportunities.

“Philanthropy generally is much more comfortable at the cutting edge, dealing in the area of innovation, in tackling new models in social welfare, for instance, that if they are proven successful, the government might in subsequent years pick up,” says arts identity Carrillo Gantner, chairman of the Sidney Myer Fund.

“It sometimes deals with things that some might think are politically controversial, because it doesn’t have to worry about the democratic process and getting votes for what it does.”

The Sidney Myer Fund — named for the retail pioneer who left a tenth of his estate to the community — several years ago reorganised its arts programs and in 2011 established the Sidney Myer Creative Fellowships.

The fellowships come with an income of $160,000 over two years, intended to motivate mid-career artists to keep at their creative work and not disappear into more financially secure careers.

The Myer fellowships are peer-assessed in confidence and in this way resemble government grants: Gantner says the formal adjudication gives the fellowships rigour and legitimacy.

The two-year income, he says, allows artists “time to pause, think, create, to go down an avenue” without tying themselves to a specific project.

The fellows are indeed a diverse bunch, including composers Eugene Ughetti and Paul Stanhope, theatremakers Chris Kohn and Matthew Whittet, and multidisciplinary researcher Danielle Wilde. Wilde — whose fellowship has involved her ongoing multidisciplinary work with the body, neuroscience and design, as well as a motorbike — says the Myer fellowships allow deep thinking without the pressure to produce a defined outcome.

No wonder she has found the experience so liberating.

The Keir Foundation, set up by former Rolling Stone publisher Phillip Keir in 2004, is another philanthropic body doing creative work in the arts and with human rights projects in East Timor.

Typically, Keir chooses the arts projects he wants the foundation to support, and thereby avoids the cost of processing applications. Among the ventures he supports are Geelong’s Back to Back Theatre and Ahilan Ratnamohan’s theatre piece about African migrant footballers, Michael Essien I Want to Play as You… (both of which have recently appeared at the LIFT theatre festival in London, where Keir is a director).

Keir started his latest project, the Keir Choreographic Award, because there was no other cash prize for contemporary dance-makers. There were 77 entries, and the shortlisted eight were each commissioned to make a 20-minute performance.

The short works are being shown in two separate programs at Melbourne’s Dancehouse, before a final round at Carriageworks in Sydney. The award comes with a $30,000 prize and a $10,000 audience prize.

Before he embarked on his publishing business, Keir was a theatre director and studied for a time in New York in the late 1970s; there, he observed the collaborations between such figures as choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage and artist Robert Rauschenberg.

With the choreographic award, he wants to encourage a similar meeting of genres and disciplines: hence the surprising entry of video artist Shaun Gladwell in a competition ostensibly for dance-makers.

Keir also wanted the award to be a catalyst for collaboration between funding bodies and venues. He has provided $80,000 for the award, matched by the Australia Council, and with admin and technical support from the two venues. Dancehouse artistic director Angela Conquet says the Keir award is the first private investment in such a project for contemporary dance.

Keir, who will sit on the panel of five local and international judges, says he generally likes to bring his expertise to the projects he supports.

He would like the biennial award to produce danceworks that could be developed to full length. Indeed, some of the entries are already being eyed for possible future seasons.

“One of the desires to come out of the choreographic award is that we bring in practitioners from outside conventional dance, who would not normally be funded by the (Australia Council) dance board,” Keir says.

“That’s hopefully where the foundation can be a bit more nimble, because we don’t have to work in a silo.”

The Australia Council also offers a fellowship program, with $100,000 for established artists and $60,000 for emerging artists. Similar to some of those projects supported by the Myer fund, recent Australia Council Fellowships have tended to go to artists who work in multi-art form projects; indeed, this may be indicative of the new grant structures being implemented at the Australia Council.

But the use of taxpayers’ money is necessarily controlled, and grants are awarded according to clearly stated objectives.

Private philanthropists can in some ways be more adventurous in the way they support artists. Indeed, many are highly imaginative players in this area, investing in projects and individuals that in turn bring benefits to the creative sector and its audience.

As governments retreat from subsidy, the smart money is watching savvy cultural entrepreneurs like these.

The return on investment? Just watch how many artists being supported by the private sector turn up in major festivals and exhibitions.

Says Keir: “People fund things because they want something to happen. I am not involved in arts philanthropy because I am trying to fill a gap; I am interested in the work itself.”

Program two of the Keir Choreographic Award is at Dancehouse, Melbourne, July 10-13. The final round is at Carriageworks, Sydney, July 17-19.

Image: Phillip Keir with judges Matthew Lyons, rear left, and Marten Spangberg and dancers Tim Darbyshire, Atlanta Eke and Matthew Day during rehearsals at the Dancehouse in Melbourne. Source: News Corp Australia

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Book tickets to the Keir Choreographic Award finals at Carriageworks $35