The Frustrated Philanthropist

Rather than whine about a lack of sponsorship, perhaps arts companies should do more to pamper their sponsors.

There is a lot of discussion about arts funding in Australia – our reliance on government largesse as opposed to the American model of support by the wealthy through philanthropy. With the government money pot being spread so thinly across so many worthy recipients, you’d think most arts organisations in Australia would be extremely excited if a private individual walked through the door with a pot of non-refundable money.  Maybe not. I recently met an individual who loves the arts and was quite prepared to give lots of money to various theatre and performance companies, but found it a difficult experience at every turn. As they don’t want to be identified, let’s give them a codename – FAP (Frustrated Arts Philanthropist). 

FAP began in a small way by offering to buy a theatre – yes, the whole theatre – on behalf of a company that was in danger of losing its lease on the building. This would have amounted to a $1.7 million grant to buy the building and then rent it back to the company, but the rent would also be donated back to the company to pay for much-needed repairs. The theatre management had a cursory meeting with FAP and then refused the offer, preferring that the theatre be publicly owned. Fair enough, but the management couldn’t seem to find a way to keep FAP and the pots of money involved. As a consequence FAP walked out the door not to be seen again. That $1.7 million could have sponsored an awful lot of theatre.  

FAP then donated $20,000 to a theatre organisation in another part of the country, which acknowledged the donation by letter, but then did nothing to encourage any involvement with FAP, didn’t invite them to special evenings or even send updates about how the money was used. FAP has had this experience with a further two arts companies, who accepted the donation, but then never invited them to a drink, or a function or had any follow-up contact. I have another friend who donated money and actually works in the arts and is therefore a PAP (Poor Arts Philanthropist). PAP donated $1,000 to help a small theatre company with some fundraising. For this he received the barest acknowledgement and was never contacted again. Nothing, zip, niente. 

I’m not suggesting this indifference is endemic – I have seen the way some organisations carefully schmooze their patrons and sponsors and leave everyone feeling happy. But given that all arts companies cry poor and that post-GFC money is harder to come by, when a gift horse does turn up at the door you’d think managements would be falling over themselves to saddle up rather than look it in the mouth. FAP and PAP didn’t want a whole lot of special attention; they didn’t want musicians grovelling on the floor in front of them or smoked salmon canapés presented by fawning actors on opening nights; they just wanted to feel part of the art they were supporting, with an added dash of low level sucking-up. FAP confides they would have been happy to stuff envelopes in a back room to help out with the organisation and make new friends in the arts. (I suggested that for $1.7 million I could happily add them as a friend on Facebook). 

What concerns me is that I know two decent, arts-loving and generous people who have found the experience quite unrewarding and would not part with their money again. And if there are two such people in my circle, how many more arts patrons out there are feeling just a little bit unloved?

For more of Guy Noble’s wit and wisdom, check out his Soapbox every month in Limelight magazine.

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The Frustrated Philanthropist
Guy Noble
Guy Noble is a conductor, radio broadcaster and the writer of a regular column entitled Soapbox in Limelight magazine.
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