Is private funding making artists scared?

As government funding gives way to more private sponsorship, accountability is being replaced by pressure for arts companies to reflect the values of those giving the money.
Is private funding making artists scared?

 Image via theunboundedspirit.com

Does the appetite and reliance on new monies from the private sector create a timidity amongst our companies and eroded our ability to dissent, offend and challenge? Have we become quiet and compliant to the will of a new breed of patrons and taste makers?

Ralph Myers and David Pledger have both outlined the fact that amongst our larger arts organisations, the Chairs of Boards and the Boards themselves have become increasingly populated by business people, private philanthropists and managers.

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This is seen as an attempt by companies and governments to build non-grant income for companies. But has it shaped the artistic will of a company either directly or indirectly?

Has this created a world where artists don’t fit in? Or created a mould where artists are not trusted? Have we become fearful of artists like Bill Henson or Barrie Kosky, or an artist who will offend and polarise an audience?

I fundamentally don’t believe this is the case, but I think we need to be vigilant.

I think if artists consider themselves as equals to board members, philanthropists, sponsorship managers, believe in the worth of their work and ambitions, then a dialogue can occur without necessarily compromising their artistic intent.

But I have seen a growing trend of late where the artist feels disempowered in these discussions. Where artists feel that they cannot achieve their aims, based on an assumption of obstacles.

The assumption of disempowerment is as destructive as any actual reality. We’re not talking about discussion, debate and differences of opinion.

I’m talking about where people assume disagreement, and a point of view before even testing it and don’t engage in the discussion, choose to be silent rather than face a bit of biffo.

I come from a collaborative art form and an Indigenous community, so I think I am all for a good debate about what is the ‘right’ way forward together. When I was 24 I ran an Indigenous theatre company in Brisbane called Kooemba Jdarra – which means Good Ground.

Deborah Mailman and I, and Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell and a huge range of artists, worked with the company over the years. We did a huge range of work in communities, theatres, career development and commissioning. We had an all-Indigenous board and in the mid-90’s we were hoping to expand our work and needed increased financial support. The Board were discussing options to raise funds and our attention turned to sponsorship.

Now you can imagine the issues that arose around taking support from a fictional alcohol company, or a hypothetical mining company… we talked about approaching the Commonwealth Bank and one board member pointed out the role of that bank in the Queensland stolen wages saga of the 20th Century.

The company was ultimately in pursuit of a mythical ‘clean money’...in the end it was hard to identify the notion of clean money. Even the idea of needing money and speaking English was a contestable assault on Indigenous sovereignty. In the abstract, it was impossible to identify clean money.

We hit a kind of paralysis of integrity. Any move was a checkmate because we didn’t agree with the game we were playing.

Concepts of brand association and personal integrity stopped the work we were wanting to make from occurring. We found it impossible to tell the stories we wanted to tell to our community and the broader community because we assumed things in the abstract that we didn’t know we could do.

Flash forward 20 years. I am back in Brisbane and running the Queensland Theatre Company. We have a project that was so big that there was no way we could afford to do it alone.

Enter Silbelco. Now Silbelco is a family-owned company with mining interests across the globe. One of those mines is a sandmining operation on Stradbroke Island….I call it Minjeeribah…it is my tribal lands. I must admit to feeling conflicted about this potential relationship.

On one hand the notion of engaging with a mining company brought up all this conversation two decades earlier but on the other hand my family have been engaged in the sand mining business for all the time it had been occurring on the island. My father talked about how he and his father did test drilling when he was a child.

As one of 13, my father gave up schooling at ten to help provide for the growing family and when my grandfather died, leaving his brood to fend for themselves, it was the church, Legacy and the sandmining that helped get them through those first few years without the welfare breaking the family apart.

The project we needed the money for was Black Diggers a show of such immense importance to the nation’s history that even with the support of the Sydney Festival and extra support from the Australia Council its future was dubious. Black Diggers is about the stories of Indigenous soldiers who went to and returned from WW1.

My great Aunt is Kath Walker Oodgeroo Noonuccal and I remember her saying to me once that traditionally the natural landscape is there to feed us and feed our art. Convenient memory…thanks Aunty Kath.

But it set me on a journey of discussion about values…I talked to elders and community members. I can tell you now there is no consensus on this topic. Blackfellas are like a pack of whitefellas sometimes — no one can agree who should be the leader, who has the numbers and what policy is the right one to dump, and which version we’re up to.

Sometimes I would rather eat an onion than have these conversations.

In the end, I stood by the decision to accept the support of Sibelco, because ultimately the intent of the work was to express an Indigenous perspective and celebrate the contribution of those Indigenous men who served and sacrificed.

We were honest about the difficulties and the intentions of the work and Sibelco is a fantastic supporter. I mean it. They don’t try to tell me what to do, they don’t try to make propaganda or corrupt the intention of the artistic vision. They are not deaf to the concerns in the communities in which they work and attempt to create more value for those people they work with. Not to assuage guilt, or mediate bad press but because they believe it is a responsibility of a corporate citizen.

This decision seems to many a betrayal of some rainbow alliance of green, black, pink and any other assumed relationship but it is not for others to decide what is right for me.

Boycott

I wrote a Platform Paper last year which is published by Currency House, and one of the topics I wrote about was the boycott of the Sydney Biennale by a number of artists in 2014.

Now I respect each person’s right to navigate the minefield of association and sponsorship as they see is right, it is a complex issue and I do not know all the arguments involved but I personally feel that boycott is more about a battle of brands than it is about making a difference around a social concern.

The real challenge is to engage in a debate and create work that reflects that debate. The silence of the artist is an abrogation of our basic role in our community. If you believe in an issue enough make your art a reflection on the issue.

If the organisation or the sponsor is not making demands on the work then can you not accept the support from the sponsor; but at the same time create a critical environment within the work or in a discussion about the work that promotes alternative views to those of the donor?

For me that is the key. It’s the ‘arms length’ that helps us accept monies from a government that we may or may not agree with. A government of a country that has systematically disenfranchised Indigenous Australians, promulgated obviously racist policies over the years and proven themselves ineffectual advocates for change;  but I will accept their support to challenge them and give voice to the opposing side of the debate.

Negotiation

The true drama of sponsorship comes from when you (as an artist) can express the reasons you want to make the work, your values and the stories you want to tell. When you can dedicate your life to engaging in important work that takes the world to another place of investigation and growth. And the sponsor or philanthropist can do the same thing — they can articulate why they want to share their treasure. What the values being expressed through sponsorship and philanthropy are — and what they expect from the relationship.

It is not a transaction of master and servant, it is a conversation of equals, it is not a mendicant meets Midas relationship, it must be where we talk about what we want to achieve and if there is irreconcilable disagreement we can move on without penalty or prejudice for any future conversation.

This article is an extract from an address by Wesley Enoch today at a Currency House Creativity and Business Breakfast at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

Wesley Enoch

Wednesday 18 March, 2015

About the author

Wesley Enoch is a theatre director and writer who for over 25 years has specialised in Aboriginal Theatre and cultural stories. He hails from Stradbroke Island (Minjeribah) and is a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man. Wesley is the current Director of the Sydney Festival and was the Artistic Director of companies including Queensland Theatre Company 2010-15, Ilbijerri 2003-06 and Kooemba Jdarra 1994-97. Wesley has worked with many large theatre companies, arts centres and festivals in Australia and won multiple awards including, the Patrick White Playwrighting Award, Helpmann Awards for best production and best new Australia work and Matilda Awards. He was a Director of the 2006 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony and is a former Trustee of the Sydney Opera House.