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No strings attached: How small donations make a big difference to the arts

Fierce competition for the philanthropic dollar has forced artistic companies to come up with new ways of attracting money.

Performance Space in Redfern is not for everyone. It favours experimental works and is ''all about taking risks and challenging the status quo'', says the general manager, Julieanne Campbell. For years, it looked agog at the millions of dollars lavished on mainstream arts companies and thought: ''Not for the likes of us.'' In 2006, it raised a grand total of $216 in donations.

But by then, a tectonic shift was under way. The board, previously stacked with artists, opened up to people with experience in business and arts management. Campbell began a mentoring program with Louise Walsh at Artsupport, a branch of the Australia Council dedicated to increasing donations to the arts. Walsh introduced her to philanthropists she thought might be sympathetic, including a property developer.

He understood the company's emphasis on process over product and also liked walking. So when Campbell pitched him a development program based around walking, he got excited. ''And being entrepreneurial, he wanted to extend it, make it bigger, get his business mates to pitch in. I guess for us it was like, 'Right, business people. They think really creatively!' '' she says.

In 2007, donations to Performance Space jumped to $33,000; this year they're on track for $85,000 to $90,000. It has significantly altered the company: how it operates and what it believes is possible.

Philanthropy in Australia is changing and arts companies are changing with it. The arts still gets only a tiny fraction of all the money given away in Australia each year - 2.3 per cent in 2005, when the last comprehensive survey was undertaken - but it is growing. The Australian Major Performing Arts Group found that private donations to the 28 companies it represents increased by 157 per cent, more than eight times the consumer price index, between 2001 and 2010. The latest Australian Business Arts Foundation survey of more than 700 arts organisations had similar results, finding that donations had gone up 136 per cent, or 19 per cent a year, from 2001 to 2009. This was despite the global financial crisis. Arts sponsorship dipped dramatically, but giving held up fairly well.

Some of this is down to an overall increase in philanthropy, driven mainly at the top end: headline-grabbing donations such as Simon Mordant's $15 million to the Museum of Contemporary Art's expansion program this year. But the fastest growing form of philanthropy in Australia is through private ancillary funds, smaller foundations usually worth between $500,000 and $2 million, which act as vehicles for wealthy individuals to systematically make tax-deductible gifts: they must disburse 5 per cent of the value every year. Nearly 900 have been created since they were established in 2001 (originally called prescribed private funds) and this is where the arts has done particularly well. It's the second-biggest category after welfare, receiving more than 14 per cent of all disbursements.

August 7, 2010
Catherine Keenan
Sydney Morning Herald