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Investing in the Arts for Social Change

7 March 2013 at 9:25 am
Staff Reporter
‘Investing in the Arts for Social Change’, was the topic of a recent Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation Donor Conversations event. CEO Catherine Brown offers her take-outs from the discussion.

Staff Reporter | 7 March 2013 at 9:25 am


Investing in the Arts for Social Change
7 March 2013 at 9:25 am

‘Investing in the Arts for Social Change’, was the topic of a recent Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation Donor Conversations event. CEO Catherine Brown offers her take-outs from the discussion.

“The Arts are not just social services in another guise.” This comment by Sue Giles, Artistic Director of Polyglot Theatre, stayed with me after the panel discussion with our donors about Investing in the Arts for Social Change.

As a community foundation, we are always learning about how we can make the most difference through our philanthropic investments. The expert panel discussion was part of this learning process. By the end of the discussion, I was reflecting on the Foundation’s recent move to Survive and Thrive and Capacity Building grants for our smaller grants.

I began to see this as ‘platform’ funding, where the Foundation can provide the stable base to enable arts organisations interested in positive social change to follow their creative paths – wherever they might lead. The Arts operate in an organic space and philanthropy must remember this.

Artists of all media play reflective and regenerative roles in our community. Arts projects can offer things that are new and can build bridges between groups and sectors. The Arts enables connection, recognition and projects often provide a new lens or a vision of what is possible. Artistic work often enables a shift in our understanding about issues, about how we understand the physical world, or about relationships within our community.

The Panel discussion included two internationally recognised Arts practitioners, Sue Giles from Polyglot Theatre, and Deborah Halpern, sculptor. It also included one of the leading Arts administrators in Australia, Sue Nattrass AO, and one of the leading thinkers about Arts and Education, Professor Brian Caldwell. It was a compelling discussion and there were many take home lessons for a Foundation that has only funded in the Arts for just over five years.

Sue Giles and Deborah Halpern both spoke about the organic way that projects develop and engage professional, amateur artists or children. Deborah made the statement that it is important to “Produce a result that people can be proud of. It is more than a process. Something beautiful or powerful is created.”

In her work on the Creating Community One Sculpture at a Time project with the Fitzroy housing community, it has been critical that the sculptures will remain as beautiful works for the participants and local community to be proud of. There is a level of excellence and focus that is required beyond the benefits of participation.

Sue Giles of Polyglot Theatre spoke of the powerful work being done with young mothers through the Baby Box project (funded as a major grant by the Foundation last year). She spoke about the slow realisation by the participants that the art they had created was a thing of beauty and merit. The silhouettes of pregnant bodies that were exhibited at the end of the program had been breathtaking. The young women realised that they could create something powerful and profound. The Arts can offer a new lens and enable shifts in people’s understanding of their place in the world.

Project development and evaluation were also important elements that philanthropy should support. The opportunity to reflect on a project during its life and at its end allows for learning and provides a strong base for the next stage of the creative process. I came to think of this as ‘Plus 1’ funding as I was listening. Funding is often needed to provide the support and energy to take the next step.

Sue Nattrass AO spoke of her experience while General Manager of the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne when she provided space to the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust to perform Munjong for the first time.

The play could not find a venue to play in in Sydney so when Sue became aware of this the theatre company was not only given the George Fairfax Studio for the season but was also given the Studio for five weeks rehearsal in order to fully develop the performance. This young (and short-lived) theatre company included young actors such as Rhoda Roberts and Lydia Miller who have since gone on to act and direct amazing performances and festivals, including the Dreaming Festival at the start of the Sydney Olympics.

It is critical that philanthropy provide support at the production development stage to enable time for ideas and skills to evolve before a performance or exhibition.

From the perspective of a Foundation that is committed to supporting all young people’s life opportunities and social inclusion, the research presented by Professor Brain Caldwell was a call to action.

Through his work for The Song Room, Prof Caldwell and colleague Dr Tanya Vaughan undertook a rigorous study of five schools where students took part in one hour of arts education each week (in a range of areas such as visual art, drama, dance and music). These students’ learning outcomes were tracked against students in schools that did not offer an arts program.

The impact of arts education is profound. Those participating in the arts program gained a whole year in scores on literacy and also scored higher on every dimension of the Social and Emotional Wellbeing survey.

Philanthropic investment in the Arts must be open to the artistic process, however that is described or actualised. Funding the capacity building of arts organisation as a spring board for creative works is critical. Supporting evaluation and then sharing knowledge is also a valuable role.

The Foundation is indebted to our four expert guest speakers for their deep insights, which will help us improve our philanthropic granting practice and become more flexible collaborators. 

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