Philip Bacon reflects...

Reflections from 2019 Philanthropist of the Year

Our 2019 Philanthropist of The Year, Philip Bacon AM, reflects on the importance of the arts and philanthropy in a year of debate about funding and support for the nation’s cultural industries.

Philip Bacon AM - 2019 Philanthropist of the Year
By Philip Bacon AM

The Arts are at the centre of the world - my world, anyway. I have been an art dealer and collector ever since I put a small, very small, deposit down and paid off via a lay-by system (a baby boomer’s version of After Pay), an original painting that had caught my eye, over fifty years ago.

This first, tentative step into the world of the arts lead me to discover what a magical, transforming and crucially important aspect of our society the arts are. I believe utterly in their importance and know how bereft we would all be if art was no longer being made, music wasn’t heard, plays weren’t performed, little girls stopped being taken to the ballet by their grandmothers, or the Sydney Opera House became a museum, because Opera could no longer be afforded. What a dismal prospect.

The Arts matter, and the people want, and need them. More Australians go to art galleries than go to the AFL and NRL games combined. The creative industries employ more people than agriculture or mining, at last count it was nearly 600,000 people.

The Arts are supported by Government of course, and that investment generates many benefits, not least of which is by changing opinions, breaking down stereotypes, instilling values, and transmitting experiences across space and time.  The Arts, such as architecture, painting, sculpture, music, literature, could be considered the repository of a society’s collective memory. Remember the anguish we all felt when the Taliban blew up the world’s two largest standing statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan in 2001, or when fire erupted in the roof of Notre Dame.

But the benefits are also financial, as each year Australia’s creative industries make a $112 billion economic impact against a government investment of some $7 billion. We do often hear that the arts should pay for themselves, that government support should be reduced, but let’s consider the reality of subsidy.

There are very few areas of our society that are not subsidised - think for instance of the education system, which would not exist without massive government support. The Australian Institute of Sport spent $332 million of public money on the last Olympics campaign.  The mining industry gets around $4 billion in government subsidy, and even our very profitable big Four banks are subsidised by almost $6 billion a year.

So, it’s fair to say that the arts industry, which receives less than $7 billion a year from all levels of government, is one of the least subsidised, but at the same time, one of the most important.  As former Prime Minister Paul Keating said in 1996: “Culture and identity, the structures and symbols of our government and the way we define ourselves as a nation are not distractions from the concerns of ordinary people, their income, their security, their mortgage payments and their children’s education and health. Rather, they are an intrinsic part of the way we secure these things”.

We are all only too well aware how shrinking government support for the arts, for medical research, for education, for so many things that make our civilisation what it is, impacts enormously on what can be achieved by those in the field. And that’s where philanthropy comes in. By expanding private philanthropy, by enabling others to give, through the efforts and advocacy of Philanthropy Australia, for instance, we can ensure that the great work of our artists and performers, our researchers and doctors, our teachers and scientists can continue.

Support for our cultural institutions ensures that regional Australia is not forgotten. The touring programs of say, the National Gallery of Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery |Gallery of Modern Art delivers great art exhibitions to even the most remote areas, as does the regional touring of Opera Australia, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and the State’s Symphony Orchestras, such as West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

These are expensive undertakings, and impossible to be afforded without underwriting from the private sector, such as the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, surely one of this country’s most generous and enlightened philanthropic families, who seem to support a huge proportion of the endeavours that I believe in, and whose contributions are truly life changing for many individuals and institutions.

The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) has recently announced one of the most extraordinary cultural gifts ever made, a staggering bequest of $38 million from the Estate of James and Diana Ramsay. They were long-time supporters of the AGSA, and their  benefaction commenced in 1972 with the gift of an 18th Century Japanese lacquer tray and then continued throughout the following decades with gifts of over 80 works of art, the establishment of the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation in 2008, and culminated, following the death of Diana in 2017, in one of the largest cash donations ever given to an art gallery or museum.

The size of this bequest rivals even the famous Felton Bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria, which in its day was integral to the development of that gallery’s great collection.

Soon, a bequest of a similar value to the Ramsay’s is expected to be announced by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art which will also have a game changing impact on that institution’s collecting program.

These and other far-sighted philanthropists prove for us that art and culture DO matter. They define who we are as a nation and how we differ from our neighbours. They point to our past and more importantly, to our future. The Arts deserve our support, and from my observations, this support continues to grow, to the betterment of all.

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