Peter Ivany AM,
Ivany Investment Group

Cultural Leadership Through Philanthropy

Spanning cultures and crossing generations, people have always come together for the love of the arts. Our Indigenous peoples, the oldest nation in the world, have a cultural tradition of story-telling through art. Culture brings people together and builds communities that thrive. We can learn a lot from our Indigenous cultures, in particular, how to harness generational respect for the cultural experience.

And as we see with large-scale events like Vivid, the sheer enjoyment factor should not be overlooked either. The sharing of arts and culture makes people feel good. It’s that simple.

After years building businesses and working successfully in the corporate environment, I made a conscious decision to move sideways and concentrate equally on my philanthropic interests. Having a foot in both camps, I can see the real need for the skills acquired in the business arena, to be put to good use in the charitable and not-for-profit sectors too. As a consequence, I feel strongly that we in the business community have a responsibility to share the load of cultural funding rather than the entire burden falling to governments. In partnerships, this will maximise the leverage for each government dollar for the organisations to receive.

Governments are finding their budgets squeezed tighter by the competing funding demands of education, health, transport and infrastructure. Whilst there is still a commitment from state and federal governments for arts funding, we would be living in a government-funded film script if we thought it was going to move up the agenda any time soon. And so it falls to businesses and individuals to pick up the slack. And why not?

The perception that philanthropy is largely made up of well-meaning millionaires dolling out large-scale dollars whenever they feel their conscience niggle, is an outdated notion. So is the idea that corporations are only looking for a positive media release to correct a poor brand image. This may have been the perception a few years ago but in today’s corporate environment with strong governance and accountability, there is a requirement for more thoughtful and focused giving.

It’s certainly a mistake to think of philanthropy solely in monetary terms. It would be many people’s idea of an easy way to tick their philanthropy box and not worry themselves further if it was just about making a large donation. Of entirely equal value is the giving of both time and skills to those organisations in need of guidance and individuals within the sector in need of mentoring.

And it is skills such as a well-thought-out business strategy, governance, financial acumen, functional operating models, marketing, coaching and mentoring that are just as valuable a philanthropic commodity as cold, hard cash. Time is as limited as money. Making the time to share experiences and expertise can be beneficial to both sides of the relationship.

Simply because a foundation or charity, art gallery or museum relies on donations, whether they be in the form of government ‘hand outs’, corporate gifts or consumer contributions, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be run as a business. There should be an onus of not simply being accountable for how they spend the money, but just as importantly, how they thrive financially too.

Governments and the private sector don’t need to work in isolation from philanthropy. Globally there are different models within arts funding. In Europe the arts are largely funded by the government whilst in the US, they are on the whole privately funded. Here in Australia, we have a mix and I truly think it is the best of both worlds.

The role of government within the arts works very well at a community level. Startup funding, developing the scope of a new arts project and getting it moving are all areas that need wholesale government support. But just in the way that governments are now looking more holistically at our cities and how we live now and in the future, they need to look too at the role that the arts and culture play within that model. They need to leverage every single dollar they commit to arts funding and it’s leveraging that is key.

The Sydney economy has long benefitted from the overseas tourist industry and part of that benefit stems from our cultural and arts offerings. We have natural assets like the harbour and our climate that we’ve capitalised on. Part of what makes Sydney a vibrant, liveable and loveable city is our cultural offering but that’s wrapped up in the larger infrastructure package.

It is imperative that we make our arts and culture accessible, exciting and part of our everyday existence. Culture needs to be planned just as much as infrastructure, indeed planned alongside infrastructure. Arts precincts, venues that are easily walkable, vibrant public spaces and if we’re thinking really big, theatre districts, do not come about by happy accident.

If we are to encourage the growth of our cultural offering and make it an attractive proposition to those keen to invest their philanthropic time and money, we need to think holistically in how we approach the next generation of arts funding. Raising awareness and interest from an early age is key, so education plays a huge role. I talk of the ‘next generation’ deliberately. Would not taxpayer dollars be better spent on vibrant and relevant arts and culture than trying to mend our broken drinking culture?

The biggest market for the arts in this country is its audiences and it’s clear we have a real appetite for it. Every year when Sydney hosts the ever-expanding Vivid and the Sydney Festival, our city comes alive. And the reason they get bigger every year is because high quality arts and cultural events are crowd pleasers. They have mass appeal, people want to participate and they want their children to be part of it too. And whilst there is certainly a place for more niche events, if we can get the masses interested in the arts at an early age, that interest can continue later in life.

The NSW State Government is heavily involved in these cultural events but they are sustained by businesses, corporate sponsors and people who are passionate about culture in our city and the benefits for the end user—the audience. The arts are an important part of our society, not an after-thought, and should be viewed as a good investment for business.

Philanthropy has a broader social impact than the funding of single projects, however popular or niche they might be. If a project is successful as a result of philanthropic efforts and that project then goes on to engage, entertain and educate, the initial philanthropic donation (whether that’s money or skills) has had a much broader social impact. The social dividend is clear.

And so, whilst it might be beholden to the corporate world to pick up the budgetary slack in the culture and arts sector through philanthropy, overall I believe that has a positive benefit to all. Business thinking can be brought to the table, the sector can be diversified, corporates benefit from positive marketing exposure and supported organisations can become more accountable.

For me, business and philanthropy are intertwined. I am lucky as my business interests facilitate my philanthropic ones but I do believe it’s a circular equation. There’s certainly satisfaction in knowing one’s had a positive impact. If that has the potential to fuel increased philanthropy from the corporate sector, then that is reason enough.