Social and economic signals worldwide have implications for Australian arts organisations says Virginia Henderson AM.

Social and economic signals worldwide have implications for Australian arts organisations says Virginia Henderson AM.

In mid 1980, the newly appointed general manager of The Australian Opera, Patrick Veitch, recently arrived from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, declared that in line with trends elsewhere, the survival of arts organisations in Australia would depend on their capacity to attract new revenue from audiences and customers, together with greatly increased levels of sponsorship and private philanthropy.

Under his leadership, the company set about building a creative business culture of vitality, innovation, confidence and opportunity, in partnership with the artistic and technical teams.

The company invested strongly in recruiting, training and developing its marketing and development personnel while actively engaging with the business and wider community. Other organisations looked on with scepticism, but adopted the same strategies after observing the ensuing success.

Twenty-five years later arts and culture are important contributors to the national economy and an integral part of Australian community life. The number one leisure activity of people across the country is not sport, but arts and cultural events.

Today’s flourishing arts organisations exhibit some common attributes: quality performance in the core business; strong leadership from the board and CEO; innovative management and marketing; passionate, committed and effective staff working towards a clear vision; financial contributions from leadership; effective advocacy and engagement with the community.

However, raising money for the arts in this country remains a challenging task.

A step in the right direction would be to transform the way arts companies speak about themselves and their perceived place in Australian society. A pervasive and debilitating internal conversation exists in some sections of the arts – a “deficit conversation” which focuses on the shortages and difficulties – ageing audiences, declining numbers, cuts in corporate sponsorship, reduced government funding, the unsympathetic political and social culture and so on.

It’s true that without the financial resources to develop business capacity, some organisations remain in perpetual survival mode. In tackling these issues greater emphasis has been given in recent years to professional skills development, strengthening board leadership and volunteer leadership contributions.

So what generates confidence about the future of the arts at a time of fierce competition for resources and ever-increasing costs?

Firstly, the current obsession with material greed and consumerism cannot last forever. In the natural order of things new values and lifestyle choices will bring greater awareness of the value of the arts to a culturally rich and diverse society. If we want them we’ll need to pay for them – like all the other essentials for a quality lifestyle.

Additionally, social and economic shifts in other parts of the world, in particular the United States, signal a new era in which the arts and culture will be recognized as essential elements in a new creative economy. The arts are about people and ideas – the most valuable currency in a creative world.

In “The Rise of the Creative Class”, the economist Richard Florida writes about the emerging “creative economy” and its key drivers: highly creative, self-motivated individuals and clusters of like-minded people in science, engineering, architecture, technology, the arts and culture, finance and investment – where the emphasis will be on people and a creative ethos. While Florida’s research was largely undertaken in American cities it has big implications for Australia.

He believes that people will want increasingly to be part of communities that offer cultural opportunities and diversity. “The most highly valued options were experiential ones – interesting music venues, neighbourhood art galleries, performance spaces and theatres. The highest-rated nightlife options were cultural attractions (from the symphony and theatre to music venues …)”

And while people have tended to “derive their identity from the old corporate-driven economy, as traditional institutions have ceased to provide meaning, stability and support”, people are seeking their identity elsewhere.

This will mean active participation in community, “not so much the result of a “do-good” mentality, but reflect(ing) their desire to both actively establish their own identity in places and to contribute to actively building places that reflect and validate that identity.”

This is good news for the arts – which must pay attention to these opportunities. The creative economy signals an era in which the arts can strengthen their position and their voice, creating inventive ways to attract new audiences and new income, confident in their role as a full-blooded leader in the economic and social agenda in Australia.

Virginia Henderson AM has been a figure in Australia’s cultural landscape for 20 years. She is currently the executive director of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation, deputy chair of The Australian Ballet and chair of the Australian Youth Orchestra. She was formerly executive chair of the Bell Shakespeare Company.