22/04/2010 - 00:00

Arts still creating pathways to establish broader connections with corporates

22/04/2010 - 00:00


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While the arts’ role in shaping society is well understood, the benefits of its partnership with business is growing, but not widely appreciated.

Arts still creating pathways to establish broader connections with corporates

THROUGHOUT history, some of the world’s greatest artists and their artistic endeavours have struggled for recognition and acceptance.

Post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gough, who died relatively unknown at 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, infamously cut off his left ear.

Depending on the school of thought, the incident was either caused by an undiagnosed case of bi-polar disorder or a drunken fight with close friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin.

When Russian composer and musical revolutionary Igor Stravinksy, named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the past century, premiered his celebrated 1913 ballet, ‘The Rite of Spring’, it was labelled too radical and provoked a riot among the audience, leading to the artist’s self-imposed ostracism for part of his life.

And local artist Stormie Mills, who started his career breaking the law with his graffiti on the walls of various Perth landmarks, has broken down barriers as society has grown to appreciate his work.

These cases illustrate the complex nature of the arts, and the artists themselves.

The arts sector’s involvement in today’s commerce-driven society also remains somewhat misconstrued – its function often misunderstood or misinterpreted.

When a sample of Western Australia’s arts sector advocates, who happen to be some of the state’s most prominent business leaders, gathered at a recent WA Business News boardroom forum, demystifying the arts was acknowledged as being of paramount importance as a means of raising the sector’s profile, garnering further support and ensuring its longevity.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Sam Walsh, who is also chairman of the Black Swan State Theatre and the Australia Business Arts Foundation’s WA chapter, hoped to remove the ambiguity surrounding the sector, believing the arts were a window to ourselves.

“Generally people don’t truly understand how the arts actually work,” Mr Walsh said.

“I suspect they think it works like business: you have a product to sell and that’s how you make money, and that’s how the business becomes vibrant and thrives.

“The arts is actually different – all of us have a role in relation to making the arts sustainable and supporting the arts. I think generally people don’t really understand the role business plays in relation to this.”

AbaF WA director Henry Boston said the arts sector had itself to blame, at least to a certain extent, for the current level of misinterpretation, which had been caused by perpetuating the illusionary myth surrounding artistic performances.

“Opening night, the curtain goes up or there’s the ‘tap-tap’ as the conductor starts and it’s all done like magic,” Mr Boston told the forum.

“Nobody understands the work that goes on behind or beneath it to make it work.”

As such, demystifying the arts and highlighting their value to society and business, while creating awareness of the roles everybody can play in supporting the arts was central to ensuring the sector’s survival.

“Certainly the people who come to exhibitions or shows or whatever, that’s important. State and federal governments have a role, business has a role through sponsorship and support, and individuals have a role,” Mr Walsh said.

“And unless you have all those areas working, the arts won’t actually thrive or survive.

“Without these other elements the arts can’t survive, and that’s the most difficult message to deliver – that we all operate off the smell of an oily rag.”

Chairman of John Holland Group and the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, plus AbaF councillor, philanthropist and noted arts lover, Janet Holmes a Court, said there had been a tremendous increase in the number of businesses interested in supporting the arts.

“And thank goodness for that as there’s been a decline in relative funding from governments, so business has been able to make up the difference for us,” she said. “At WASO, government funding doesn’t pay the wages and to me that’s sad. In a lot of instances, we are using our sponsorship dollars to pay the general running costs.

“I would love it if, at WASO and any other arts organisations I’m involved in, the funding we get from our various sponsors could be for icing on the cake or cherries on the icing on the cake.”

It’s fairly common for corporations, especially the big mining and resources outfits in WA, to align themselves with art galleries, theatre groups, cultural festivals, orchestras and opera companies, usually through sponsorship arrangements, in return for positive branding within the communities they operate as well as opportunities for their employees to attend these artistic activities.

Mrs Holmes a Court, who is also on the board of the Australian National Academy of Music and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, recalled a survey of 2,000 international executives undertaken when her family owned theatres in London (including the Paladium) asking respondents why they chose to live in the English capital despite it being a “polluted place where you can’t find a parking space and everything else”.

“And 75 per cent of them said, ‘I wanted my family to grow up in a place where there was the opportunity to go to art galleries and theatre and symphony concerts every night of the week’,” Mrs Holmes a Court said.

“And all the people that Sam [Walsh] and no doubt Alan [Cransberg] and everyone around this table want to attract to come to Perth, want to be able to do something rather than watching television every night.

“I reckon that’s why we get a lot of our sponsors at the WASO because these businesses are saying ‘What are our people going to do when they come here?’”

Having living in New York, Alcoa of Australia managing director Alan Cransberg said he liked the diversity the arts scene brought to a city and especially appreciated the power of the arts sector in shaping society’s values.

“There’s always a branding aspect, as in ‘Alcoa does nice things for the community’,” Mr Cransberg said.

“But I think we’ve got an opportunity to reinforce some of the key values we think are important in our society no matter where we are, whether it be regional or Perth.

“If we don’t, as business leaders and heads of mining companies or construction companies or whatever, take that opportunity then we’re not going to change.

“I think we have an opportunity to shape society in a different way and I think that’s value adding, that’s why we [Alcoa] are involved.”

Mr Cransberg was not alone in signalling his desire to target school children as future supporters of the arts suggesting it would help create better kids in terms of their diversity and the way they thought, behaved, lived and contributed to society.

His Majesty’s Theatre Foundation executive director and Dome Coffees founder, Patria Jafferies, said ‘Generation Y’ needed to be engaged with the arts and taught about giving at a much younger age.

And Mr Walsh highlighted that Black Swan was already working with school children, ensuring at least one show during each season was aimed at a younger audience to attract them to the performing arts.

“You’ve got to grow the culture that we’re talking about, of people engaging with the arts,” Mr Walsh said.

“You can’t just expect people to suddenly find religion; it’s got to be gradual.”

Mr Cransberg was also supported in suggesting that contractors need to do more for the arts akin to the large corporations that utilise their services.

“Not just construction companies but some of the companies that service industries need a bit of pushing,” Mr Cransberg said.

Mr Boston told the forum the John Holland Group was “one of the honourable exceptions of contractors” that was heavily involved with the cultural sector.

“Personally I would like to see the contractors share the same value as the people they’re contracting to,” Mr Boston said.

“The resources sector does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the investment in the cultural sector, so it would be lovely to see the engineering companies, the construction companies and some of the others, who at the moment are absent from that area, to share some of the values of the Alcoa’s and the Rio’s.”

But how could arts groups marry their cultural pursuits with an appropriate corporation’s specific values, and then how would they engage with that corporation deeply enough to ensure valuable and sustained support was achieved?

In her 12 months at His Majesty’s, Ms Jafferies has noticed a lack of alignment between arts organisations and prospective partners’ company vales and outcomes.

“Lots of companies are publicly listed companies with shareholders to answer to and you actually have to be able to articulate and demonstrate the value adding to the company,” she said.

WASO CEO Craig Whitehead said the orchestra’s most successful corporate partnerships had a depth of engagement that permeated the entire organisation from the top down.

“The ones to have stayed firm (during the GFC) are those that have that deep engagement and there’s no buckling or any sense of jeopardy in those,’’ he said.

“The ones that kind of wavered were the ones we tried to engage and develop a depth of engagement but for whatever reason hadn’t got there yet.”

Mr Walsh said it was unrealistic to expect to ‘‘just knock cold on a door, whether it’s a business or an individual, and expect them to bring out large chunks of money.’’

Centuries ago, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare penned: ‘‘The object of art is to give life shape.” It’s a line with a ring of truth in 2010.




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