Sector planning for the long haul

30/07/2008 - 22:00

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When prominent Perth accountant Frank Cooper was asked to join the WA Opera board, his initial reaction was: "The fat lady with horns? Not my cup of tea".

Sector planning for the long haul

When prominent Perth accountant Frank Cooper was asked to join the WA Opera board, his initial reaction was: "The fat lady with horns? Not my cup of tea".

The incumbent directors, including engineering executive Dario Amara, persisted with Mr Cooper, who was eventually won over.

"I went to see several performances and talked with the artists, and it went from a form of entertainment which was over there to actually understanding what they are trying to do," Mr Cooper said.

He has since become one of the growing number of business executives to have become supporters of the arts in Western Australia.

Marketing executive and Perth International Arts Festival chairman Mike Smith - whose past roles have included being chairman of the West Coast Eagles - speaks for many when he talks about the arts sector's buoyancy.

"I really like the fact that we are more confident, more positive, we're building a vision, whereas for a lot of the time I think we've been our own worst enemy because of too much complaining," Mr Smith said.

"We're heading in the right direction, if we keep being positive we've all got an excellent opportunity.''

Messrs Cooper and Smith were among a group of leading directors and executives involved in the arts industry who gathered for a recent WA Business News boardroom forum.

Increased government support for the arts sector provided a backdrop for their discussion.

With a world-class theatre currently under construction in Northbridge, $500 million committed to a new museum on the East Perth power station site, and $73 million dedicated to boosting the arts through the Ignite package, the sector has received a flood of commitments from the state government.

The corporate interest has been strong, too, judging by the latest Australian Business Arts Foundation survey.

It found that WA's total private support for the arts in 2006-07 amounted to about $16 million, the next largest amount of support after New South Wales and Victoria.

The 2007 national AbaF awards were dominated by the four-year deal to commission four new major performances between Wesfarmers and UWA Perth International Arts Festival.

And the bums on seats are not lacking either. The Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts has doubled its audience in the past three years, according to director Amy Barrett-Lennard, and the PIAF is battling to find venues that can accommodate its growing audiences.

However, culture and arts sector specialists are conscious that systems need to be put into place to retain the sector's importance in WA, and to highlight its potential to sustain the state's strong economy over the long term.

This was highlighted by Deputy Premier Eric Ripper at last week's launch of the Crossing Roper Bar project, an initiative of WA contemporary music organisation Tura New Music and French oil and gas company Total.

"A vibrant cultural sector is what we should expect from a strong economy and what will give that strong economy its sustainability," Mr Ripper said in his launch speech.

Participants at the forum said increasing the relevance of the arts within the broader community, as well as relevance within the business community to establish an understanding of the mutual benefits involved in sponsorships and philanthropy, was crucial.

Mr Cooper said that, although the arts sector had matured enormously during the past five years, the battle of building a relevancy in the community had not been won.

"One thing that worries me at the moment is that I think the arts have received an enormous benefit from the economic cycle for the last few years, as have most not-for-profit groups in WA," he said.

"And what worries me is what might happen when that cycle turns, because those organisations have to make sure that they remove themselves from being the last discretionary dollar and try to become one of the most important things for people to do.

"That's going to be a major challenge for us."

The relevancy of the arts sector in WA will have to be achieved through multiple mediums starting with the perception of how the arts can contribute to businesses and the articulation of the relationship.

"There is a greater readiness to provide support in the corporate sector," National Australia Bank and Woodside chairman Michael Chaney told WA Business News.

"Unfortunately, often companies seek to tie that support to specific key performance indicators in the arts companies...that's because companies feel everyone should be accountable for the money they are provided.

"I always used to think there was sufficient accountability if you assist organisations judged as being worthy, you should be prepared to provide untied funds because that's exactly what they need."

Boosting the culture of philanthropy, as opposed to sponsorship, is also being looked at by arts organisations as only 20 per cent of the corporate funds to arts organisations come from philanthropy in WA compared with 60 per cent in New South Wales.

"Companies want to do philanthropy but they don't know how; I think it's our role as arts organisations to make that easy and to give them some big dreams and guide them through it," Mrs Barrett-Lennard told the forum.

Strategic communication and introducing tax and superannuation schemes for artists to put into place systemised support for the arts in the long term were some of the other ideas raised in the discussion.

"We have very good times for people and companies in Western Australia and we've got to make sure that we invest in the future of this country and this state and part of that is investing in the arts and culture," Wesfarmers managing director Richard Goyder told WA Business News.

Although the arts sector is going through positive times, Form executive director Linda Dorrington commented on an alarming situation accentuating the skills crisis currently affecting WA.

"The only talents that we are attracting in WA are an engineering, science mix...we have the lowest registration of social capital by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which is calculated on the levels of volunteerism and cultural engagement, which is putting us at the second bottom in the country," Ms Dorrington said.

"We are building an economy that is based on engineers and unskilled trades, now what is that going to look like in 15 or 20 years time?

"There is a falling academic record, less people bother registering for any form of formal education, our bachelor degrees are at crisis point, not just 'oh we better look at it', (we are) at crisis point."

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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