Apr 26, 2018

Why the Australian arts sector could be in for a major reckoning

There's a dense web of influence between our finance sector and cultural institutions. After the royal commission, does it make sense for bankers to head arts organisations anymore?

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

Who gets to govern Australia’s major cultural institutions?

The question has taken new interest in the wake of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. That’s because many of the top directors and executives caught up in the royal commission also helm Australia’s largest and most prestigious cultural institutions.

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10 thoughts on “Why the Australian arts sector could be in for a major reckoning

  1. jmendelssohn

    It’s a bit more complicated than presented here. For many years the board of the Art Gallery of New South Wales was dominated by artists – whose faction fighting made NSW parliamentary politicians look like rank amateurs. In addition there always were Trustees associated with the big end of town – including Charles Lloyd Jones, Lady Fairfax and Harry M Miller. With the Art Gallery of New South Wales Act of 1980 more business people came on board, along with some political appointees. Unfortunately the first person who filled both these requirements was one Edward Obied.
    In recent years the trustees have included many philanthropists familiar with governance procedures, and only two artists. The presence of the great medieval tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, would not have been possible without the support of Ashley Damer-Dawson, who was able to both support the exhibit with her own funds and enable further support from other sources.
    Arts organizations will always need the expertise of those with both an understanding of governance and an ability to network with politicians and others who can provide funding. The problem, which won’t go away, is that as well as those who believe in giving back to the community, there will always be those who use the arts as the ultimate networking opportunity for their own ends. Eliminating those involved in the finance industry from boards of arts organisations won’t solve anything.

  2. paddy

    It would be wonderful to imagine that the RC might cause things to change in the power structures governing “Big Art”. But I remain deeply pessimistic. 🙁
    So much “face” is involved, it’s hard to see how the privileged and powerful few will be able to let go of all those opportunities to smooch with the glam crowd.

  3. AR

    Wotta surprise, the yaartz “institutions” (surely a perfect example of what art should never be) has become soiled, compromised and complicit with the BigAr$ed end of town.
    In other news, bears are catholic and papal toilet habits suss, coming up after these important messages from our owners..err, valued partners.

  4. Terry Cutler

    Sadly a lot of corporate support for the arts is crassly transactional. I recall one lauded “philanthropist” who openly stated that he had absolutely no interest in the performing arts, but found that funding them paid dividends because it would win favour with the Minister (who usually holds some other useful portfolio!). Slippery practices from the corporate world also creep in. Another recollection is of a Board member who saw nothing wrong with drawing down funds from quarantined trust accounts as an easy means of underwriting deficits.

    Collecting Board seats along with an AO is often on a par with, and sometimes concurrent with, acquiring a trophy wife (a majority of donations continue to be sourced from males).
    Fortunately, however, there are a few truly disinterested patrons of the arts and they stand out because of their intelligent and passionate commitment to an artform.

  5. MJM

    “The reasons are obvious enough: arts organisations want funding and social acceptance, while banking executives and captains of finance want culture (or at least the trappings of it).”

    The funding bit I can understand, but how much money do these bankers bring in anyway? I doubt they donate much to any arts causes from their own pockets. And the presence of bankers confers social acceptance? Yeah, right!

    I’d think the arts organisations would be better off without the taint of bankers.

  6. Zane

    For 30 or so years successive State & Federal governments have insisted that arts organisations of all kinds, big and small, across all art forms have business representatives on their Boards. This has been promoted as encouraging “good governance” and “businesslike over-site”. What it has in fact done is shift Australian contemporary art further towards conservative values and normalised a form of neo-liberal art making – marketing driven, mono-cultural, risk averse, boring and desperately (embarrassingly) middle-class. It has stifled innovation and creativity; and allowed the graft ridden cronyism of Australian business to progress a twisted far right wing agenda at the very heart of the cultural industries. This situation has been glaringly obvious and as usual, hardly anyone has ever questioned or even noted it. Thanks Ben, for bothering…

  7. Moving to Paraguay

    Yes, this is a timely article, but the issue is bigger. So many boards have become stacked with corporates and their friends. And who let this happen? It’s up to artists to come forward and demand a seat at the table. Workshops on how to argue with lawyers would be useful in giving artists confidence to come back.

  8. Andrea

    The best art comes from no compromise, but life is compromise, we all have to make a living and live in society. I welcome any interest in the arts even if it’s token.

    1. stepmars

      Thanks for expressing a practical and pragmatic view and I whole-heartedly agree. I’m not angry, just disappointed. We must remember that not every board member of cultural organisations with a background in financial services is tainted.

      1. stepmars

        …hang on, I just had a brilliant idea! Let’s replace the bankers with members of the clergy. They’re above reproach, aren’t they?

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