Ben Cameron, the arts program director for a large New York charity, is well-versed in the challenges facing arts companies fighting over an ever-smaller pool of funding. Cameron handles a $13 million grants program for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, aimed at theatre, contemporary dance, and jazz.
As one of New York’s razor-sharp experts in diverse funding for arts funding, philanthropy and grants he’s worth listening to as we face an austere current funding climate for the arts in Australia.
Everyone here is looking for solutions, new income, and how to deal with more competition. In the face of health, education, pensions and taxes, the arts come very low on the list of government priorities.
For all Australian arts companies’ bellyaching about limited state funding, Cameron says the situation is far worse in the United States.
“Our [American] reliance on private philanthropy across the arts and cultural sector is borne out of necessity, it is because the state did nothing for a long time and we needed to fill a vacuum” Cameron said.
According to Cameron, an American arts organisation might, if lucky, get 1%-2% of its funding from government sources. The rest comes from foundations, endowments, donors, patrons and audiences.
“I have learned that in Australia organisations secure from 40% to even 90% of their funding from government — that’s amazing,” Cameron said.
But as Australian companies lose out on that crucial government funding, how can they make up the shortfall?
“There is always need to diversify and to look at individual contributors, to patrons and gifting, explore a range of options, but it’s not an easy challenge,” Cameron said.
But he says Australia need not go the way of the US in terms of entirely privately funded arts.
“We lost that debate the US — we need to reframe it in context of the collective priority in terms of defence, health and other social priorities,” he said.
In America, as Cameron points out, the founding Puritans frowned on theatre and the arts. The state only began in to invest sporadically in the arts in late 19th century, mainly to support civil war and other memorials.
“The commercial expression of the arts, the entertainment business, preceded the not-for-profit arts,” Cameron said.
After the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and ensuing global financial crisis, the philanthropic sector contracted by up to one-third.
“In the face of the real and very human impact of the financial crisis, many philanthropic funds focused more of their support on health, welfare and so on, the arts took a back seat.”
But crises can also provide opportunity. “Never waste a good crisis,” Cameron said. “This is the time for arts organisations to become disciplined, to let go of ancillary functions. It is also an opportunity to think more creatively about audiences, about possible patrons and allies.”
He points to the impact of social media and the way it “radically redefined marketing”.
“Social media is a creative portal. We can see what an organisation does and how it does it behind the scenes, and we get to know the people that run the arts. It also allows us to see what people are sharing in terms of experiences,” Cameron said.
“The social rhythms in social media are different and the old subscription model is ineffective, we need new thinking about how to reach audience.”
Crowdfunding campaigns like Pozible offer some hope, but arts organisations can’t rely on them for steady income, Cameron says.
“They work well for independent projects, for short films and recordings,” he says, but not as well for established organisations.
Cameron also says relying on corporate donors can be problematic – even stifling – for arts organisations.
“A corporation is also less likely to risk consumer resentment and anger, thus have a low willingness to fund controversial art,” he said. “The notions of ‘I don’t want my money to be spent where I don’t like’ is starting to frame arts support, and in the end its also individual preference.”
Cameron is effusive about Australia’s arts and cultural sector. He believes our state support for the arts that should be preserved and cherished. “Your embrace of technology is amazing, and I believe you have a real thinking audience. I went to MONA in Hobart and was very impressed with the place and the use of technology to engage audiences,” Cameron said.
At the same time, Cameron acknowledges that new forms of income, focus and determination, new marketing opportunities should be at the forefront of our thinking.