Daily Review journalist Ben Neutze says James Packer’s major arts donation — in exchange for approval for his Sydney casino — raises questions around the meaning and funding of culture in Australia.
Gambling and the arts have had an on-and-off, quiet, comfortable relationship in Sydney for quite a while now. The Sydney Opera House was funded largely through the Opera House lotteries (over $100 million was raised for construction), and one of the biggest commercial theatres, the Lyric, exists as part of a casino. And it’s not just in Sydney; performance spaces abound in casinos around the world, and in the UK, the National Lottery has injected around 2 billion pounds into the arts over the last 20 years. But given what we know about the pervasive and destructive force of gambling, is it a relationship arts companies should be willing to continue?
James Packer this week announced a $60 million Sydney Arts Fund, as part of the Crown Resorts Foundation, one of the casino’s corporate social responsibility programs. Some $30 million will go towards Sydney Arts institutions, with Sydney Theatre Company and Art Gallery of NSW the big winners. A further $30 million will go to Western Sydney arts projects.
The news has been unsurprisingly met with rapturous enthusiasm from the arts community. It’s big money, and arts companies are usually just a few poorly received seasons away from serious financial problems (just this month, the Arts Centre Melbourne announced a deficit of $7.2 million in 2012-2013). The donation should help to solidify the companies’ financial position and allow them to reach wider audiences.
Executive director of Sydney Theatre Company Patrick McIntyre says the company is extremely excited about the “landmark gift”, the largest philanthropic contribution it’s ever received, at $15 million. As STC reaches its 30th anniversary at The Wharf, it will be able to look to the future with a little extra cash (the company’s annual turnover is around $30 million, and it will receive $1.5 million annually from the fund for 10 years).
It might all seem like an unusual move on Packer’s part (he openly admits he’s not an art lover), but it’s clearly in his business interest. And he’s probably also hoping it might curb some of the public Packer-bashing, at least for a little while.
The grant has been won through negotiations to secure political support for Packer’s new casino at Barangaroo, so it’s not, strictly speaking, a donation. It does come with strings. But those strings don’t necessarily extend to the lucky companies that will benefit from the fund.
The Sydney Arts Alliance, an ALP lobby group, advocated for funding to the NSW arts community as a condition for the party’s support of the Barangaroo development. Though the eventual deal was reached by Crown and the other parties involved, it was the alliance that initially put the issue on the table. Blake Briggs of the alliance said: “It is critical that the people of NSW receive lasting benefit from the creation of a second casino in NSW.”
And perhaps that’s the attitude of a lot of the people involved — if gambling has to exist, it’s essential that we benefit. It might explain why this connection between gambling and the arts is not new — as gambling is seen by many as a dark part of our cultural landscape, the arts are seen, almost universally, as the brightest. Perhaps good can come from bad.