Shared ambition unites arts and corporates in WA

This year has been filled with milestones for the performing arts in Western Australia. It is the 110th anniversary of Perth’s much-loved His Majesty’s Theatre, the historic performance venue for three major companies—West Australian Ballet (Australia’s oldest continuing ballet company, est. 1952), West Australian Opera (est. 1967) and West Australian Symphony Orchestra (est. 1928).

Shared ambition unites arts and corporates in WA

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2014 is also the 100th anniversary of one of Western Australia’s most important corporate supporters of the arts, Wesfarmers. And Wesfarmers celebrates around 40 years of giving to the arts in Western Australia.

It all began in the mid-70s, when the company started collecting Australian art—a collection that has now grown into one that lends to museums around the country and the world.

In 1998 Wesfarmers decided to expand its involvement in the arts to embrace performing arts (largely at the instigation of previous managing director Mike Chaney), and started to structure sponsorships with major organisations, targeting those with a vision of artistic excellence.

That meant the state’s major companies, West Australian Ballet, West Australian Opera and West Australian Symphony Orchestra—and a little later, Black Swan State Theatre Company—all became the beneficiaries of the company’s arts program, as well as a few national companies—Bell Shakespeare, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Musica Viva.

Since then its involvement in the arts has been championed by the company’s managing directors and the board, according to the head of Wesfarmers Arts Unit, Helen Carroll.

‘There’s been an understanding and support throughout the company, not only for what the arts can contribute to the cultural life of the community, but also how we engage with the world and with innovation.

‘Of course our involvement was in a modest way in the beginning, but it has grown and diversified over time,’ Carroll said.

Now the arts are embedded in the corporate culture of Wesfarmers.

‘We’ve done some fantastic events over the years and try to do them quite regularly,’ she said.

For example, Wesfarmers staff can see rehearsals with the West Australian Ballet, or go to dinners and lunches where dancers and artistic directors past and present talk about what’s involved in being a dancer and what the challenges are for dance in Western Australia.

‘And we’ve always involved our arts companies in major events in Wesfarmers’ life.

So this year, in Wesfarmers’ centenary, we were so privileged that our core arts partners were involved in the celebrations right from the word go.

‘West Australian Ballet crafted and choreographed specific performances for us, including—and we were just so touched by this—Aurelien Scanella [West Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director] coming out of retirement at our gala dinner in Perth at Government House just a couple of weeks ago.

‘He wanted to be there, along with Sarah Hepburn, a really beautiful dancer.

‘That indicates something very special about the nature of the relationship [between West Australian Ballet and Wesfarmers]—and the fact that it’s been a partnership in the true sense of the word for nearly 20 years.’

The relationships that Wesfarmers have built with WA’s major performing arts companies are very solid, built on mutual respect and an understanding of the commonalities between elite arts companies and corporations.

‘I remember Mike [Chaney] telling me about a business dinner at Government House several years ago when a number of dancers from West Australian Ballet were seated with members of the business community,’ Carroll said.

She described the conversation as one where people talked about professionalism, commitment and passion, albeit from differing perspectives.

‘People were energised and inspired … recognising excellence, vision and creativity, no matter what perspective they came from.

‘So when West Australian Ballet was really serious about making the move from His Majesty’s to develop its own State Ballet centre [situated on the 1897 historical site of the former Blind Institute in Maylands] where it really could gain the traction and the momentum it needed to be able to expand, we understood that and didn’t need to be convinced.

‘We came on board as the lead donor in the capital program to provide that venue which has turned out to be such a huge success.’

Western Australia has long had a healthy corporate sponsorship culture, with the mining boom creating a strong state economy.

According to AMPAG’s Sponsorship and Philanthropy Survey, in 2013 WA performing arts companies received 21 per cent of total corporate sponsorship for the sector, despite the state having just 11 per cent of the country’s population.

Since 2001 corporate sponsorship income has surged 216.4 per cent in WA, with a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 9.3 per cent, well ahead of other states and comparable CPI figures for the same period.

This robust economic situation enabled companies’ corporate sponsorship programs to weather the GFC with little if any damage.

In fact, it was during the GFC that Wesfarmers started to shift from one and two-year contracts with its arts partners, to three and five-year contracts.

‘We wanted to give them security so that they could keep working. We certainly weren’t of the view that you shut down your community contributions when times are difficult because without the community, we don’t exist,’ Carroll said.

‘Because they [the arts companies] are so much a regular part of the culture of this company, it wasn’t as if there was any scenario where they were sitting on the periphery and were expendable.

‘That has never been the case. I think that is what is crucial—as long as a partnership is actively revived and regenerated and provides an ongoing exchange of ideas and energy, then it becomes part of the life of both entities.’

The eminently quotable Winston Churchill said, ‘We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.’

That could well be the mantra by which Wesfarmers Arts Unit embeds itself in the WA arts community.

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