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The state of the arts in tough economic times

By Jane Haley - posted Monday, 25 August 2008

It’s said we may be heading for the big R - recession. If that’s the case, how will the arts be affected?

When there is talk of an economic slowdown, people tend to say: “I suppose that’s the end of sponsorship for the arts.” Actually, it’s not.

Maybe people who make those comments are thinking of the old style sponsorships that were based on “the chairman’s whim” (or even “the chairman’s wife’s whim”) where the chairman would give money to their favourite art form in exchange for good seats and a few glasses of champagne. That kind of discretionary spending is easily cut.


But partnerships these days are much more about strategic benefits - for both the arts and the business. Companies invest in the arts because there are business benefits - to markets, employees, customers, communities, shareholders. Arts organisations gain financial support, in-kind benefits, and access to business expertise.

It’s often said that Australians are obsessed with sport, and we naturally see a lot of that in an Olympic year. There is certainly far more business sponsorship of sport than arts. But surveys show that more Australians participate in the arts and attend arts events every year than they do sport.

There are no overall signs of arts audiences declining - on the contrary, many arts events are experiencing significantly greater audience numbers. An estimated 1 million people attended this year's Sydney Festival. Nearly 80,000 people attended Adelaide's world music festival, WOMADelaide and more than 230,000 people visited the Warhol exhibition at GoMA in Brisbane - a record that may be broken by the current wildly successful Picasso exhibition.

So if reaching a wide audience were the aim, sponsorship of popular events like these makes a lot of business sense.

Some people take the view that all arts funding should come from government. Of course funding from federal and state governments is vital and it has increased somewhat in recent years. But there is always going to be a need for sponsorship - many arts events and organisations could not survive without it.

Others suggest that business sponsorship of an event will affect the purity of the art. But no arts organisation should allow a business sponsor to interfere in any way with the integrity of the art they are making - nor would any reputable business suggest it. Apart from anything else, commercial interference would drive away the audience pretty quickly.


Arts sponsorship doesn’t have to cost big bikkies and it certainly isn’t limited to big business. Partnerships involving small businesses and local arts organisations are taking off too. We recently introduced Premier’s Arts Partnership Funds in South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia. Through these funds, cash support for new sponsorships is matched dollar-for-dollar. That doubles the sponsorship’s value.

I’m not claiming that things are rosy for the arts. Many arts organisations are facing challenges, particularly those committed to touring regional and rural Australia when rising costs mean that taking shows on the road has become very expensive.

There are many opportunities for businesses - especially companies with markets in an extended geographical reach - to step in and sponsor regional tours. What a great way to demonstrate support for customers in regional and rural communities.

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First published by ABC News online on August 20, 2008.

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About the Author

Jane Haley is the CEO of the Australia Business Arts Foundation, a Commonwealth government company that promotes private sector support for the arts. Find out more about AbaF at

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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