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Publication: “The Australian Newspaper”, 23rd December, 2004

Governments and business leaders must support the arts, argues Geoffrey Robertson.

SHOULD successful businesses contribute to the arts? Americans think so, but just recently they were shaken by the experience of an art exhibition hosted by a profitable New York supermarket. It closed the show in panic when a nice portrait of the President turned out, on closer inspection, to be made up of chimpanzees. The problem, apparently, was the artist’s insinuation that George W. Bush may not have been created by God, but might have evolved from an ape. It was Kafka who said that the duty of an artist was “to wield his pen like an icepick, to smash the frozen sea inside us”. So corporations that support artists may get back more than they bargained for.

I’m sure that Australian businesspeople understand that the provocative purpose of art in a more sophisticated way than the Prime Minister, who claims that Sydney mayor Clover Moore’s proposed disco version of the Australian national anthem will lower the tone of the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. I had always thought the phrase “girt by sea” was appropriate only to the name of a ladies’ retirement home – what joy to hear it is to be the chant of a conga-line around Circular Quay.

Australia has advanced fairly well, from Sir Les Patterson to Arts Minister Helen Coonan in just two decades. “The arts” is now an $8 billion industry, an asset to tourism, a source of national pride (four Oscar nominations) and an intellectual export. Most of London’s great museums and ballet companies and arts centres are run by Austrlians. So you would think that culture, so vital to our sense of identity and community, so crucial to our fun and our mischief, would be nurtured financially by government and by business.

If you think that, you would be wrong. Government in Australia devotes less than 1 per cent of its spending to the arts – less than 0.5 per cent if you subtract the ABC and SBS. Business donates $1.5 billion annually to charity, but of that a mere $70 million goes to the arts, and $40 million of that is for sponsored events. Asked about benefit their companies obtained from arts donation, 40 per cent of executives said “we get signage” and 35 per cent said “it’s the free tickets”.

But let’s not be censorious. All company directors – Ray Williams excepted – know if the strict legal duty to use shareholders’ money only for the benefit of the company. So it’s important to explore new ideas about how businesses and the wider community can benefit from their involvement in the arts. In 2002, Richard Florida, a US professor of economic development, published a seminal book, The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he argued that creativity was not confined to artists; it was shared by scientists and professionals who recognised how innovation and adaptability were the keys to economic advancement.

The function of the creative class in every society is to develop new ideas, technology and methods of problem-solving – its members include those top professionals in business, finance, law and public administration who bring an independent, educated but individual judgment to bear on finding ways through intellectual or administrative mazes. Florida’s thesis, in short, is that technological, cultural and economic creativity is interlinked and inseparable, providing a rationale for corporate involvement in the arts and indeed for government encouragement of that involvement.

There is another emerging rationale, which might be crudely called the payback principle. Those who have taken large profits from society have a moral duty to plough some of them back – into community education, welfare and culture. In the US, Bill Gates and Ted Turner are examples of a trend that draws on Puritan fundamentals: good works are a precondition for salvation, not as a means of buying your way into heaven but as demonstrating, in life, that you are the sort of person who deserves election to that great boardroom in the sky.

For this reason, philanthropy is suddenly coming out of the closet. Once, donors insisted on anonymity, afraid of attracting begging letters and burglars. Now, if you have a heart you must wear it on your sleeve. “The latest fashion accessory,” cynics may sneer, but the moral responsibility of the rich to demonstrate that they have given some of their wealth for the public good is increasingly accepted – certainly by Australian employees, who say they do not wish to work for “heartless” companies, and increasingly by consumers and shareholders. It may soon be recognised by accountants as essential to a corporation’s goodwill. In that event, of course, it will be essential for the arts to argue the case for its own share in corporate payback. This can be hard: employees, offered a corporate “match” for money they raise for their favourite charities, invariably nominate sick children, followed by cancer research.

What must be explained is how support for the arts, as part of charitable giving, contributes not only to a happier community, but a healthier one as well. We are still at an early stage in understanding the impact of different forms of human expression. Classical music is recognised as having a therapeutic effect on mental conditions and even delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Only last week the National Health Service in Britain announced that doctors would be permitted to prescribe books in place of anti-depressants – prose instead of Prozac. Will visits to the GP be quite the same again? “I’m not sending you back to the sanatorium – here’s a ticket to the Ring Cycle.” Or perhaps, “Erectile dysfunction? I’ll write you a prescription for the latest Kathy Lette novel – it’s cheaper the Viagra.”

Company directors should be aware they have greater freedom to donate to the arts than previous interpretations of the law suggest – so long as the donations objectively furbish the company’s reputation and goodwill and are not designed as a trough in which they can wallow. Arts institutions, too, must curb greed and discriminate: sometimes there is reason to beware geeks bearing gifts. The Guggenheim is a laughing stock after allowing motorbike manufacturers to sponsor an exhibition, called Cart of the Motorbike, and for allowing Armani to pay for an exhibition pretending it was high art. Above all, any increase in corporate giving must not be used as an excuse for the federal Government to withdraw its funding even further.

What would life be like without art? Like sex without foreplay, or cappuccinos without froth? No metaphor works because life without art is simply unimaginable, and movements that seek to suppress culture invariably fail. It seems safe to say that the more collective or individual expression there is in a country, the more confident, happy – even healthy – is the common weal. So here’s hoping that government and business leaders join the conga line swaying to the disco version of the national anthem: it would provide some assurance that Australia has really advanced.

(This is an edited version of a speech made at an Australian Council/ UBS forum held in Sydney in December 2004)

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© 2005 Geoffrey Robertson QC
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