Why invest in the arts?

There’s been a lot of discussion about Transfield Holdings' sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale and the subsequent refusal of their funds after protest and shaming.

Arts minister George Brandis is reported as having written to the Australia Council seeking policy to penalise arts organisations that refuse funding from corporate sponsors on “unreasonable grounds” and threatening to force them adopt one if he wasn’t happy with their effort.

The Greens have seized on the discussion to point out that Brandis’ Liberal party accept funding from tobacco companies, a source of sponsorship that has been discouraged in many sectors. You’ll see the image above has been authorised by Greens leader Christine Milne.

One of the things that I think has been missing from the discussion is why companies invest in the arts. The obvious answer is publicity and to associate themselves with cultural activity but I’m curious why this activity is seen as positive. Why are the arts seen as good? What do companies gain through association?

I’ve just been reading David Byrne’s book How Music Works and he discusses the idea:

Elitism is not the sole reason that the “temples of quality” are lavishly funded. There is also the undeniable glory of seeing your name on a museum or symphony hall.

Byrne quotes Alain de Botton as writing:

I met a lot of people in the property business [developers, as they are called in the United States], an asked them why they did what they did… They said it was to make money. I said, “Don’t you want to do something else? Build better buildings?” Their idea of doing something better for society was to give money to the opera.

Byrne goes on to write:

The kind of compartmentalizing — separating one’s livelihood from one’s social aspirations — is part of the reason David Koch, the hidden hand behind a lot of ultraconservatives and, reportedly, the Tea Party movement in the United States, transforms himself into a respected arts patron by funding a theater at Lincoln Centre, or why a Swiss bank that helps U.S. depositors avoid paying taxes generously supports symphony halls and the ballet. It’s almost as if there are moral scales, and by tossing some loot on one side, you can balance out the precarious situation your reputation might be getting into on the other.

Byrne quotes John Carey’s book What Good Are the Arts? on the attitude of oil magnate John Paul Getty:

In his view, artworks are superior to people. His art collection was viewed as an external or surrogate soul. These spiritual values attributed to the artworks were transferred to the owner.

Working in the arts sector I am occasionally asked what value they bring and I’ll say they hold a mirror to society. That the arts provide metaphors and emotional depths and can provide a variety of perspectives on the human condition.

Rarely am I challenged to outline their benefit beyond that but if I were I’d point to the training ground they provide, with people developing skills in the arts that are sought in commercial realms. The Australian Bureau of Statistics first study into the economic contribution of the Creative and Cultural Industries has found it added $86 billion to our national economy in 2008-09.

However, I’m rarely challenged to make this argument because most people appreciate the arts. There’s an inherent sense of goodwill towards the arts because they promote human expression and — like how the misguided belief in a right to free speech is often thought to be a good thing — this idea that philanthropists are assisting culture is what they're capitalising on.

By investing in the arts they are seen as helping artists express themselves and enrich society. Like this money is helping people reach their potential and achieve goals, much like sporting prowess, in an area where success isn't as easily quantified but imparts some sense of nobility.