A luminary of the Australian philanthropic scene, Rupert Myer AM has been an active and devoted supporter of the arts for decades.
He has held roles across Australia’s largest arts institutions, chaired the Commonwealth Inquiry into the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Sector, and currently sits on nine boards as well as serving as Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts.
Myer’s deep philanthropic roots are, of course, steeped in a family history that was shaped by the legendary generosity of his grandfather, Sidney Myer. Though he grew up surrounded by the business of philanthropy, Myer says there was an understanding that merely carrying the family name did not make you a philanthropist.
“All the family were invited to participate in the administration of the Myer Foundation and the Sidney Myer Fund,” he says. “We were very mindful of the fact that our involvement didn’t, in turn, make us philanthropists – we were administering someone else’s philanthropic act, be it that of my grandfather or my uncle or my father. Administering someone else’s philanthropic act doesn’t allow you to wear the shingle.”
“But having had the exposure to the various organisations that have the support of the Foundation and Fund, I recognised that I had some capacity to become directly involved with my interest being in the arts, youth unemployment and indigenous affairs. I knew that to do it well you had to talk to the organisations, get to know them, and feel out what could be most useful and practical.”
In the years since, Myer has witnessed great change in the philanthropic landscape. The Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry delivered its findings in 2002 and though he concedes the resulting report is “quite an archival document now” the Inquiry delivered tangible outcomes.
“The creation of the Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy was a totally new form of supporting the contemporary visual arts and crafts as an initiative of commonwealth, state and territory governments,” Myer says. “The triennial, tripartite funding agreements meant that the individual organisations had the certainty of recurrent funding. That’s a key element because the certainty allows leverage and encourages conversations between those arts organisations and prospective philanthropists and other sponsors.
“If you’re able to assert that you’re going to be around in three years’ time then that’s actually not a bad start when you’re having a conversation with a prospective benefactor,” he says with a smile.
Myer also credits the Inquiry with further promotion of the legislative architecture around arts philanthropy in Australia, though he believes it remains underutilised by those in a position to lend support.
“A couple of years ago I gave a talk that was titled, Having found the way have we lost the will? This pointed out that we have pretty good legislative incentives in place but, at that point in time, the current generation of philanthropic givers were a pale imitation to what had happened generations ago when there was a rampant competitive philanthropy across regional Australia as well as the metropolitan areas, with building and creating institutions like the galleries and libraries and hospitals and schools.”
“Now, happily, I think this is beginning to change and there have been some stand out recent examples in the arts, education, health and research that suggest the tide is turning. There seems to be a realisation amongst the accountants and the lawyers that, when they’re advising clients of means, they can actually point to some of this legislation that already exists as a way of promoting and supporting philanthropic intentions.”
The new wave has brought significant change, particularly in the arts, which has seen some traditional funding bases fracture and diminish. Myer points out that, alongside some of the new initiatives, there are many trusts and foundations such as the Ian Potter Foundation and the Felton Bequest which continue their strong commitment to the arts.
“Because the sources of philanthropy are evolving and the needs of the sector changing, rethinking the type of support is important. There’s an element of reinvention and reimagining that needs to go on in the arts sector itself because of the creation of PAFs and the fact that a lot of philanthropists, both new and old, are focused on building up their own endowments, the income of which will be used to support a range of different activities. Yet there are many arts organisations that are still thinking about wanting to build up their own corpus.”
“The conversation with potential philanthropic supporters has to be different and I think that conversation will evolve and will more often seek to draw together a group of philanthropic supporters for a particular project – a coalition of the willing if you like – that would be formed to support a major initiative with a commitment of recurrent support over 3-5 years to do something extraordinary and remarkable.
“I also think that a lot of arts organisations tend to be of the view that philanthropic capacity resides within people aged over 60 and they’re missing the fact that there are a number of very wealthy, self-made, successful entrepreneurs who are bursting their boiler to create an adjacency with a really interesting, dynamic and thoughtful cultural organisation. These organisations have got to work a bit harder on their youth strategies.
“The arts space is going to be very interesting over the next couple of years with new ways for philanthropy to engage that helps organisations across the whole sector realise not just their creative and cultural objectives, but a new level of ambition.”
Adamant that philanthropy plays a role beyond grant making that includes “encouragement, support, visibility and amplification,” Myer is optimistic about the future, convinced that a reinvention of the sector is imminent.
“I’m always hopeful about philanthropic support,” he says. “It’s about the opportunity to support and help someone else achieve their imagination and that’s not going away. If anything, the tide of philanthropy is rising – the intergenerational transfers that will take place over the next 10 or 15 years will be very significant and I think there’s an increasing will and, I might say, just an edge of philanthropic competition – and there’s absolutely no harm in that.”
Generosity wishes to thank artist Yvette Coppersmith for the use of her 2012 portrait, ‘Rupert-Myer AM, Oil-on-linen, 97 cm x 81.5 cm, commissioned for the ‘Trinity College Art Collection’ of Trinity College, University of Melbourne.
“Rupert was a joy to work with and I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to spend time with him on his portrait,” Coppersmith says. “His understanding of the artistic process meant he was most sympathetic to allowing my intuitive way of working to unfold without the slightest intervention, other than being present and engaging. A dream subject.” See Yvette Coppersmith’s work here.