04/06/2009 - 00:00

Commerce, culture a complementary match

04/06/2009 - 00:00


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Arts and business in combination is a powerful mix.

Commerce, culture a complementary match

IN Western Australia, commerce meets culture often, and successfully. Further, the two sectors are frequently intrinsically linked, with the success of one often dependent on the strength of the other.

Commerce and culture, chalk and cheese, yin and yang, Left brain versus right brain?

Well, yes ... and no.

Business and the arts are a bit like non-identical twins; on the surface, they appear very different. There's the serious twin - studies hard, saves his pocket money, plans his career 20 years out. And then there's his brother - gregarious, lives for the moment, and uses the local bar as his study desk.

But deep down these fellows share more than common parents; they usually have similar values, complementary strengths, and share a bond that runs deeper than personality traits.

Now, I am not saying which twin I think is commerce and which is culture. What I am doing is seeking to make the point that the two sectors have more in common than meets the eye.

It is not drawing a long bow to say that creativity is at the heart of culture, and I can talk from the perspective of the mining industry when I say that creativity is core to the success of the sector.

At Rio Tinto there is no room for rigidity of thought or for black-and-white solutions. We are operating in a highly dynamic, competitive and evolving sector, where cutting-edge technology and a preparedness to innovate beyond traditional boundaries can mean the difference between success and failure.

Yes, we still dig dirt, rail ore and ship it off to the steel mills. But never before have the processes and logistics around how we do this been so important.

Creative solutions involving driverless trucks and trains and remote operations controls are going to be the hallmarks of mining in the future, as are innovative solutions to climate change and progress along environmentally sound principles.

More and more, we are becoming a technology company.

And creativity is not confined to our operations. Imaginative approaches to how we recruit and retain our people are central to our success, and we are continually thinking outside of the box when it comes to marketing, supply, IT and the many other functions that make up our organisation.

Similarly, the cultural sector has a strong business side to it.

I have been around arts organisations long enough to know that there are few truths in the stereotypical view of the cultural sector being all about tortured artists in lonely writer's garrets, temperamental actors and starving musicians.

No, arts bodies and artists today are generally highly professional, hard-working and business savvy. They can read a profit and loss sheet, are focused on strategic planning and have marketing expertise that would put many businesses to shame.

Their success is dependent on having a degree of commercial nous - or at the very least, access to it.

Art is business, and business is art.

Through my work with the Australia Business Arts Foundation, Committee for Perth, Black Swan State Theatre Company and various arts organisations supported by Rio Tinto, I have seen first-hand the power of arts and business working together.

Business-arts partnerships help to stimulate a vibrant creative economy, an economy with a soul, and it assists in making Western Australia an attractive place in which to live and work.

At Rio Tinto, our partnerships with arts organisations - including Black Swan, the Perth International Arts Festival, DADAA and Cossack Art Awards - have yielded some truly remarkable results.

We recently renewed our 10-year partnership with Black Swan. We have felt that the continual evolution of the company and the partnership has been powerful, and continues to bring about many benefits for all parties.

At Rio Tinto, we embark upon partnerships because we believe that by pooling resources and skills, we can achieve more together than we can on our own.

We know that arts for enjoyment sake is important, and to this end we often use artistic ventures to host various stakeholder groups.

But we also recognise that the arts can be a medium to tackle society problems related to health, education, the environment, and marginalised groups. And therein lies some of its real power.

Typically, the benefits of business-arts partnerships are tangible: increased audience numbers; expanded touring programs; higher ticket sales; and increased employee satisfaction within both organisations.

But sometimes the benefits are intangible: increased goodwill; greater ability to engage other supporters; professional development options; and opportunities to engage with stakeholders and networks.

It is this intangibility that can make business-arts partnerships difficult to monitor and evaluate and, for that reason - and for reasons such as perceptions of stability, reputation issues and potential identity conflicts - some might see them as high-risk.

I would suggest that successful partnerships are never without risk; the key is in identifying the risks early and managing them.

I am frequently asked why Rio Tinto supports the arts. Surely it is not core business?

Of course it is not core business. But it is important to the core.

We support the arts because we believe in its transformative power on the individual, on communities and on organisations.

Arts makes for more a more well-rounded culture, and, in a company heavily stacked with engineers and scientists, we are always looking for ways to broaden our interests and provide our people with opportunities that have meaning beyond their day-to-day work.

An example is Rio Tinto's partnership with the Perth International Arts Festival, which this year enabled hundreds of our employees and their families to connect with the Writer's Day Festival Family Day and attend theatre events such as 'Nargun and the Stars'.

Annually we provide professional development and business support for Pilbara indigenous artists as a means of helping to build alternative economies the mining sector by fostering talent development at a local level.

For the past couple of years the resultant 'Colours of Our Country' exhibition has been displayed in the Central Park building lobby, enabling not just our staff but many others in the community to appreciate the vibrant work of the Pilbara artists. Also importantly, the majority of the art has been sold, which is a wonderful result.

It is evident that the relationships between commerce and culture are particularly strong in WA relative to the rest of the country.

You only have to look to WA's representation in the Australia Business Arts Foundation national awards each year for evidence that we excel beyond our population and despite geographic obstacles.

I believe there are many reasons for this.

- In recent years organisations such as FORM and the Committee for Perth have highlighted and prompted discussion about the contribution of the creative economy to the state, both in terms of its economic impact and ability to strengthen WA society.

- The state government has shown support for the cultural sector through a number of new initiatives in recent years.

- Our business sector has long recognised the value to be gained from links to the arts and has taken a leadership position in arts sponsorships and partnerships.

- The cultural sector has demonstrated its willingness and ability to work in partnership with business in ways that are mutually beneficial and innovative.

These reasons do highlight a key discussion point, however - the importance of the cultural sector and how well focused and represented it is.

What we do know is that WA's creative sector is a considerable contributor to the state economy - more than $11 billion during the past financial year.

However, the sector can sometimes be seen as a disparate group with no united voice when it comes to connecting with government and business.

Perhaps what is missing for the arts is its own focusing body, its own chamber. Such a chamber would provide a strong collective voice to the arts sector in advocacy and cultural development. It would transcend the individual interests and deliver a compelling case for investment in the infrastructure of the arts.

Finally, a thought from Leonardo DaVinci, whose 'principles for the development of a complete mind' were: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.

Commerce meets culture ... it's an exhilarating match.

n This is an edited version of a keynote address, titled Commerce Meets Culture, given by Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Sam Walsh to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA/Perth Theatre Trust gala dinner.


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