Philanthropists Kim Williams and Sam Meers. CREDIT: LOUISE KENNERLEY
Every Brilliant Thing rehearsal room.

'You can’t take a billion with you to the grave’: Inside the world of Sydney’s power patrons

Deep-pocket donors are being relied on more than ever to bankroll the city's arts and cultural institutions as they recover post-pandemic. Meet some of the key patrons who, in rare interviews, raise the curtain on the world of philanthropy.

Linda Morris
SMH. APRIL 8, 2022

Live music stopped, festivals were cancelled, shows and exhibitions closed. When the full force of the global pandemic hit Australia, in March 2020, everything changed. The following weeks, months and years were a dark time for creators and creative institutions across the nation. As the country's cultural infrastructure shook and those in arts industries found themselves bereft of work or income, an SOS went out to Sydney's committed arts philanthropists.

Kerr and Paris Neilson, Geoff Ainsworth and Michael and David Gonski mounted a rescue of Carriageworks, the art space in the Eveleigh railyards, then on the verge of collapse. Donors Gretel Packer, Anita Belgiorno-Nettis of the Transfield family, Rosie Williams and former resource and energy chief executive John Grill, Qantas chief Alan Joyce and his partner Shane Lloyd, were among "angels" who rallied to help the Sydney Theatre Company. At Opera Australia, property investor Michael Gannon and wife Helen, Japanese businessman Haruhisa Handa and Packer family matriarch Ros Packer doubled their gifts.

The Museum of Contemporary Art raised close to $1 million, a record for the gallery, when its annual fundraising appeal took on real urgency. The Australian Ballet, Bangarra Dance Theatre and Belvoir St Theatre also received unprecedented philanthropic support during that first year of COVID-19.

The immediate crisis over, Sydney's leading philanthropists have not stopped giving, their capacities bolstered by an equities and real estate boom that has defied expectations of recession, their tax-deductible gifts delivered mainly through philanthropic foundations.

"A lot of people have made a lot of money in business and the share market," says gallerist, fundraiser and philanthropist Philip Bacon. "That money is looking for a home and something to do with it."

But the gene pool of committed donors remains stubbornly small while the need is exponential, says investment banker and philanthropist Simon Mordant, one of those who dug deep during the pandemic. Australia is ranked in the bottom third of OECD nations for spending on arts and culture, government spending not keeping pace with population growth. Last week's federal budget saw off the last of the COVID-19 support money and offered little new, and even backward steps, as the devastated sector attempts to rebuild after a horror two years.

"This will be the decade of the biggest wealth transfer in Australian history," Mordant says. "Where are the examples of Australia's tech billionaires and the children of mining families conspicuously supporting the arts? You can't take a billion with you to the grave – or $10 billion, for that matter."

Of course, greater reliance on private money comes with ethical questions. Arts companies need to exercise care not to legitimise damaged brands, what University of Melbourne's Dr Jo Caust calls "art washing".

The artist boycott of the 2022 Sydney Festival, tripped by its acceptance of sponsorship from the Israeli embassy, illustrates the tensions between business, soft diplomacy and the arts world, the latter of which is about "taking risk and being socially aware and critical and pro-active", says Caust.

"Everybody is needing money but if you take it from whoever offers it, there is always an obligation as well – it is not a free transaction," she says.

But the arguments around undue influence could equally apply to the government where support can come with a direction, price or to influence voting patterns, Caust says.

Most donors are mindful of the issue and want to support, rather than direct, the vision of the organisation they are funding, says Sam Meers, co-founder of the Nelson Meers Foundation which doubled down on its giving during COVID-19. "So yes, my view is that a mix of funding is optimal, as it provides a kind of check and balance."

Philanthropy should always be additional to public investment in the arts, rather than one or the other, says donor EsteDarin-Cooper, who says art that inspires and raises us all needs funding for its own intrinsic worth, not only for some measurable economic or societal outcome.

Part of that involves organisations talking openly about what didn't work as much as what did, says Meers.

"I think we all agree that cultural organisations need to embrace creative risk, and failure is, of course, inherent in risk-taking – but it's hard to have a positive conversation about how something can be done better when you're worried you might lose your funding."

Sydney's leading philanthropists are a roll call of financial and equity investors, property developers, a few hoteliers and media types with a parsimonious sprinkling of old money.

Kerr and Judith Neilson, Ros and Gretel Packer, the Balnaves, Nelson Meers and Belgiorno-Nettis families, Simon and Catriona Mordant, Geoff Ainsworth's Oranges & Sardines Foundation, and generations of the Fairfax and Myer families are generous givers to Sydney arts.

Motives vary. Legacy-seeking donors approaching the end of long careers find meaning in named galleries, brass plaques or mentions on concert programs. Others write their cheques anonymously, wishing no fanfare. Relationships are key. Arts organisations that cold-called potential donors during the pandemic were invariably disappointed. Help generally came after a push from "an already opened door", according to Kate Fielding from the arts think tank A New Approach, itself a joint philanthropic venture spearheaded by Rupert Myer amid the turmoil of COVID-19.

In soliciting donations from high-wealth individuals, the leaders of major cultural institutions often work as a double act or triple bill: the chief executive or director makes the case for support, and the chair, themselves a person of influence, does the asking. A passionate artistic director, wise to philanthropy, can add that touch of magic fairy dust. "If you are not excited by a company and their mission, it's difficult to find a reason to support it," says Darin-Cooper.

The Opera House's Louise Herron, herself a donor, rates businessman David Gonski, president of the Art Gallery of NSW Trust, as Sydney's "master fundraiser".

Having raised $109 million for Sydney Modern – almost one-third of the project's cost – Gonski and his trustees have gone back to donors to quietly raise millions more for the art inside. The depth of fundraising remains the envy of much of Sydney's arts scene, their donors' list and strategies much copied.

Actor Rebel Wilson donated $1 million to her alma mater, the Australian Theatre for Young People, a gesture that has given the youth theatre the confidence to stage its first professional season. At the Australian Chamber Orchestra, executive director Richard Evans and chair Guido Belgiorno-Nettis raised $16 million of $22 million needed for their new premises at Walsh Bay, anchored by a $5 million donation from arts patron Kerr Neilson, who has also given another $3 million to Bell Shakespeare, the largest donation in that company's history.

Neilson believes his generation was born in a gilded age of opportunity. "In my view, if one attributes such good fortune entirely to one's hard work, one is probably a fool," Neilson says.

"One can easily hide behind the argument that governments waste money, and taxes, including surchages and GST are high and absorb well over half one's income. However, I reason that this is tantamount to disengagement from one's society and fails to ask why do not have walled communities and why do we still have such relatively high levels of personal freedom. A long way of saying, open civil societies are worth protecting, and a little extra from those with it could be regarded as expediency rather than being defined as kindness. Better still, it gives one purpose."

The late Neil Balnaves typified the hands-on philanthropist. Once wooed by the power of an idea, he "wanted to be in the driver's seat with you", recalls National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich. "He wanted to go through all the twists and turns. He was the one who wrote cheques but was happy to contribute to strategy and game plans, so he brought his business acumen to the table as well."

Others, such as former Foxtel chief Kim Williams, invest in the artists and companies but prefer the back seat.

"I think donors need to be very cautious to avoid trying to influence from the wings – I simply don't ever do it," says Williams, who spreads his philanthropy across the performing arts and documentary filmmaking.

Williams regards private giving as "still in a place of early gestation in Australia" compared to the US, where huge endowments underwrite an institution's operating costs as well as acquisitions and building renovations.

Post pandemic, he says, performing arts companies are less bashful in the way they approach donors and more strategic in who they target, trying to find points of relatability.

"A number of organisations suggest a donation of X, and you think 'that's a large number'," Williams says. Does he always sign on? "Life is not a dress rehearsal and there is the joy of seeing creative work take place. A creative life is the crucible of life itself. It really matters, and COVID-19 only proved that. "

In seeking donations for Opera Australia, art dealer Philip Bacon wears two hats. "When I am asked, I ask back." Bacon increased his gifts to Opera Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Queensland Art Gallery, by 50 per cent when COVID-19 first hit, and has maintained his level of support.

Meers was inundated with requests for assistance during COVID-19. "The hardest thing is saying no, because there never is enough money for worthy causes. That's why you end up spending half your time giving money and the other half fundraising because you constantly see projects you want to see succeed."

Major cultural institutions court high-wealth individuals with exclusive entry to donor circles and bespoke and intimate stage experiences. The call on philanthropists is especially competitive in visual arts.​

Annual appeals and patron gala nights have returned to Sydney's social calendar after a COVID-19 hiatus. Such fundraisers are resource-intensive but sit at the cornerstone of many companies, including the Sydney Dance Company's philanthropic drive. But nothing beats the direct personal approach.

"You can't just say 'please support the Opera House' anymore," Herron says. "If you want to make a difference you have to define what you want, and you've got to sell it. What I don't want philanthropy to be is a kind of gym membership. 'What do I get for that? Do I get to go to exclusive previews?' Of course, we'll involve you. But to me, anything else is not philanthropy, it's marketing."

New museum wings and theatres and new art catch the eye of philanthropists. With no ribbon to cut, raising private money for core programs, operations or maintenance is a tougher ask, even more so for small-to-medium organisations without the professional fundraising teams and the PR megaphones of major cultural institutions. Yet building the capacity of an arts organisation to withstand recessions and pandemics is the single most important investment a philanthropist can make.

Judith Neilson, founder of the extraordinary White Rabbit Gallery and Phoenix Central Park, who is dubbed Sydney's rock star philanthropist, has taken a leadership approach. Her foundation funds arts criticism, professorial university chairs in contemporary art and architecture, scholarships for contemporary arts study, and nurtures emerging talent and studios both local and overseas.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, chair Lorraine Tarabay has made social impact – the public good that arts brings to health, education and Indigenous lives – the focus of the museum's newest philanthropic pitch.

"Gone are the days when you give to an organisation and it goes into a general bucket," Tarabay says. "I felt if you could better direct your giving within a not-for-profit it would be more impactful for people, encouraging existing philanthropists to give greater amounts and attract new donors."

Others argue that no more should be expected of art other than to simply transport a person into a more profound understanding of the world they live in. Carriageworks chair Cass O'Connor is a fan of that approach but notes that impact investing often seems easier to fund. Carriageworks' Solid Ground project funds artists in residence in schools in Redfern and Blacktown, which then encourage artistic endeavours by students, some of whom have returned to Carriageworks to exhibit.

As with many philanthropists, Tarabay came to private giving as an avid collector of contemporary art – an escape from a high-pressured career in investment banking. She and her husband, Nick Langley, made the inaugural pledge to the MCA's Social Impact through Art Fund, a donation of $1 million over five years, and support the museum's program for 12 to 21-year-olds.

Tarabay wants to see the net for philanthropists widen to include migrant families from Sydney's cultural diasporas. "For the arts, I believe it's about welcoming them and including them as part of our cultural institutions."

Community and connection, not reward, drive Sydney's youngest philanthropists. Corporate communications manager Lindsay Clement-Meehan is a member of MCA Next, the donor circle for 20-40-year-olds revamped by Tarabay last year to cultivate a generation of new philanthropists.

"What I've learnt is the best way to support an artist is to buy their work, and I have a big collection, but at the same time membership has broadened my horizons to think more widely about contemporary art," Clement-Meehan says. "One of the wonderful things to come out of it has been my loose friendships with emerging artists."

But young or emerging philanthropists can be thin on the ground in a city where the cost of a modest home exceeds $1 million. Spending money on art and buying a home? "Sometimes it has to be a choice, not both," Clement-Meehan concedes.

Michael Sirmai, the chair of Milk Crate Theatre and MCA Next, came to philanthropy through pro bono legal work and his family's high regard for social good.

"For me, it comes down to the idea of community as a driver of change," he says. "It's getting together with others to volunteer, to try and solve a problem or perhaps to give. The starting point is trying to get people inspired around a purpose, which takes exposure to an organisation over a period of time.

"And the outcome is usually about community too: bringing people together for delivery of services or care, shared experience or togetherness for its own sake. After more than two years of disruption, it's a pretty good antidote to isolation."

Sydney Writers' Festival has also set up its own dedicated circle for young donors called Dialogue.

"No one cares about winning an item at auction or having their name on the side of the building," says founding member, lawyer Tom Gooch. "Young people are more interested in being part of an ecosystem. It might look like an online book club, talks with emerging artists, but it's certainly not drinking champagne in a sandstone building once a year. I think the bargain is not money for attention, it's funding for connection. The thing people missed during COVID-19 was talking about ideas they read in books and having a conversation more interesting than their Instagram feed."

Gooch is shaping Dialogue into what he hopes will become the template for engagement with young philanthropists reaching geographically isolated and culturally diverse communities, while acknowledging there is "only so much people can give at the start of their careers".

"It can't be philanthropy by the people of the inner city for the inner city," Gooch says. "We have to do better than that."

Philanthropist Este Darin-Cooper says arts companies must take the long view. "For someone in their 30s or 40s, they might be paying off a mortgage, they might have kids, it's hard to find that money, but that's not to say that when they are 60 they can't be in a position to give the big bucks."

Paris and Beau Neilson, daughters of Judith and Kerr Neilson, have followed their parents' lead into arts philanthropy.

"We grew up in a household aware that we were fortunate ... and that made us realise that once you settle, it's time to give back," Beau Neilson says. Neilson is drawn to the arts, refugee services, juvenile justice and disadvantaged youth, and charities that assist newborns and young mothers. There is a "huge amount of alignment" with her parents' missions in her everyday work running Phoenix Central Park.

Neilson says philanthropy allows her to engage in people's stories in a more meaningful way. "You contribute to something, and you can see a tangible impact upon a life and situation, that makes a situation far more real," she says.

Gene and Brian Sherman, who last year gave $1.5 million to Sydney Modern and $1 million to the Australian Museum, rotate the chairmanship of the family foundation among their children, Ondine and Emile, and partners. Ondine says her parents had enabled her to add her passions to the priorities of the family foundation. "For me, and my husband Dror, this includes environmental conservation and disability advocacy and support."

Clare Ainsworth Herschell, daughter of Geoff Ainsworth, remains a trustee for the Art Gallery of NSW Foundation but has expanded her philanthropy into climate change activism as co-founder of Groundswell Giving.

"Prioritising climate action comes down to the fact that everything we care about – even the arts – will be affected by climate change. We need only look at the recent floods and the impact it had, including on the Lismore Regional Gallery," Ainsworth Herschell says.

The same can be said of Australia's tech billionaires. The founders of Atlassian remain committed philanthropists in the climate change area. The founders of Canva have yet to make their philanthropic priorities public.

Not every child wants to do what their parents did, says ACO's Richard Evans. "Part of the answer lies in creating events where the parents are not in the same room, and also we have to look elsewhere, acknowledging some will want to carry on a family tradition and others might not."

As they seek to recover, institutions are increasingly eyeing the purses of more than just the familiar philanthropic names. When the Opera House went looking for donors for digital work, Herron asked the builders, architects, plumbers and security firms working on-site for the building's renewal project.

Donations of ticket refunds by thousands of people during COVID-19 were also as much an act of philanthropy as they were an act of generosity, Bacon says. In 2020, more than 1800 people donated back their refunds, raising $1.3 million for Opera Australia – among them children and more than 1000 first-time donors. More than 4000 patrons raised $3 million for the Australian Ballet.

The Artist Benefit Fund, administered by the National Association of Visual Artists to dispense emergency relief to artists, received micro-donations. "Three dollars. Ten or 20 dollars. Fifty dollars, a 100. It really added up," NAVA's executive director Penelope Benton says.

However, these types of donations have begun to dry up. Meers believes it's unhelpful to talk exclusively about philanthropy in terms of large donations. "It sends the wrong message because it harks back to that old charitable notion of men in leatherback chairs smoking cigars, dispensing charity to the poor.

"Philanthropy is for everyone, not just the very wealthy. It's about giving to your capacity, be that $5 or $5 million." Mordant's $15 million donation to the MCA's new wing began with a $1000 donation.

Meers expects COVID-19 will continue to have a long-tail impact on the arts and that Sydney is likely to lose some vital organisations to an emergency not yet over.

When a new Australian contemporary opera takes millions of dollars to bring to the stage, philanthropists are needed not only to offset the losses of COVID-19, but to develop new work, Opera Australia's Fiona Allan says. "Only with them can we be brave and not default to a safety net."

The pandemic shutdown of concerts, musical theatre, galleries and museums brought into sharp relief the importance of culture in the lives of philanthropists and ordinary citizens. Studies have shown three in four people turn to the arts for comfort.

"There was a deep sense of grief and loss when that which gave us so much pleasure was no longer available," Evans says. "COVID-19 has turned people on to the idea that if you want to have an orchestra or a theatre company in your community, it's a bit like a tennis club. Then it's not only about government, it's all of our responsibility. Many people give money to things they might not even go to but just because they want it to exist."

Musica Viva's director of development Zoe Cobden-Jewitt has found success asking supporters of the organisation to sponsor concert appearances up to the value of $5000: "Isn't that how Obama got into the White House, with lots of little littles? Philanthropy is often considered the big end of town, but if you google the word philanthropy it means giving for the love of mankind. It means any one of us can do it."

Linda Morris
8 April 2022

IMAGE: Philanthropists Kim Williams and Sam Meers. CREDIT: LOUISE KENNERLEY.

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