15/11/2005 - 21:00

Philanthropy in a cultural context

15/11/2005 - 21:00


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I had a discussion one evening earlier this week about the philanthropy in the US.

I had a discussion one evening earlier this week about the philanthropy in the US.

It was not prompted by me and was borne of a conversation regarding the scale of American business and the largesse of individuals who’d made a bundle and invested it back into the community.

There are many monuments, in all forms, to these people throughout the US.

The timing of the conversation – and I will get to the detail later – was perfect because it corresponded with my desire to reflect on Western Australia’s business sponsorship of the arts.

The rather drolly named State Sponsorship of the Arts Awards is something I’ve had a lot to with in recent years and I am a huge fan of recognising industry for its contribution to the community, in whatever form that takes.

WA is something of a leader in this field in Australia, so it would be interesting to compare our experience here with that of the US, acknowledged to be at the vanguard of corporate generosity.

Like many who hear stories of the privately funded museums and art galleries in North America I ask myself why that doesn’t happen here?

Why don’t we have a Rockefeller Institute, a Carnegie Mellon University or a Museum of Modern Art here?

Obviously there’s no short answer to this question but I am going to have a stab at it.

In summary I think there are three clear reasons – Australia’s short history since colonisation, the modern focus on shareholder returns, and the vastly different psyche regarding wealth.

In some ways, I think the first two go together.

Australia has had a different and shorter history than the US in terms of European settlement.

America was a vastly richer continent, colonised hundreds of years before a relatively poor Australia. By 200 years ago – when Australia was little more than a colonial start-up – the US was already challenging the might of the European powers in both wars and commerce.

As the US started to assert its place in the world, many of its richest inhabitants wanted to show that this then new country could have the cultural riches of their ancestral homelands.

It was probably the first display of intercontinental one-upmanship the world had seen.

It has to be remembered that life was shorter in those days, and fortunes were made and lost in even less time. In addition, many of those who made it into the ranks of the wealthy were newcomers to America’s shores, with far less tradition and familial control to dictate how they spent their money before they moved on to the next life.

Furthermore, while outside the dictates of the often strict family structures of Europe, American businesspeople still held their vast fortunes in private empires that was theirs to spend at a whim.

Even when it was corporate money, transparency and accountability were hardly the rule of the day back then.

Compare that to today’s atmosphere of intense shareholder scrutiny of decision making in corporations where most of Australia’s wealth is held.

Given that past atmosphere it is easy to realise why many of the wealthy in the US felt they could offer it to a worthy cause, especially if they could make another fortune in the next rush to come your way.

This is by far the easiest and least controversial way to explain the difference between philanthropy in the US and Australia – as one of much greater wealth, combined with the early arrival of that wealth.

It created a culture of giving that is accepted and encouraged; to the point where the community relies on it.

But there is one significant difference that does, in my view, explain some of the difference.

In Australia we call it the ‘tall poppy syndrome’. In the US the opposite of this syndrome, nameless though may be, is clearly the recognition provided by the community to those individuals who give, and the pleasure this kudos brings to the philanthropists in question.

While the tall poppy thing is part of a more egalitarian society, it also discourages generous people from wanting to stand out from the pack. In spite of tall poppy mentality, of course, a certain number of people are only going to cough up for good causes if they get acknowledgement for it.

In the private world, however, few Australians want their name on anything, let alone an institute, art gallery or business school. It’s in for a dig!

Alan Bond tried it with his Queensland university, and where did that get him?

Of course I am not suggesting that all Americans want the personal kudos that comes with getting the naming rights to a library, but the community there encourages those who like that kind of acknowledgement. And we don’t.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but it is a genuine difference between our two nations, in my humble opinion.

No matter how wealthy we become, on a per capita basis, I doubt we’ll ever see the grandiose scale of philanthropy that the US enjoys.

So check out the business sponsorship of the arts awards and bask in the reflected glory of Perth’s corporates, who are making up for what our private sector really lacks.


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