The Drama of Sponsorship or The Theatre of Giving by Wesley Enoch.
This is an extract from an address given by Wesley Enoch at a Currency House Creativity and Business Breakfast this morning, Wednesday March 18, 2015, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.
Posted by Frank McKone with thanks to Martin Portus, Currency House
George Bernard Shaw is quoted as having said "There is no drama without
conflict; no conflict without something to decide."
After the 2014 Sydney Biennale artists boycott there have been many
questions raised about how artists negotiate a changing moral and financial
landscape. In a world where governments are wanting to see greater giving
from corporate and philanthropic bodies how are artists negotiating the pros
and cons of receiving monies and creating working partnerships with those
Wesley Enoch, Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, talks about
practical and ethical dilemmas for those giving and those receiving
I’d like to add my acknowledgment of country here on Gadigal Land. There are amazing stories from the Tench diaries of being able to sit on the hill behind us watching the woman and children fishing on the harbour. From this vantage point in the evenings you could spot their canoes bobbing in the water with a small fire alight in the front of each flimsy craft. The women could fish and cook a meal for their children whilst never needing to come in to shore. This kind of self-sufficiency is something the young colonists must have looked at with envy.
My name is Wesley Enoch and I am currently the Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre. I am the first Indigenous Artistic Director of any of the State Theatre Companies of the country. My family come from Stradbroke Island or Minjeeribah in Quandamooka country just off the coast of Brisbane. But I am so much more than that. On my father’s side of the family we have connections to three different clans, a great great grandfather named Fernando Gonzales a filopino man, another great grandfather from Rotumah Island in the South Pacific and a range of other bloodlines. On my mothers side of the family we have Danish great grandmother and a Spanish great grandfather who met on a boat coming to Australia after WW1, as well as a mix of European influences.
I am like the average Australian, a mix of traditions and stories to tell.
The story I want to tell today is that of support for the arts and the cultural ambitions of our nation. A story that is age old and, like me, this nation has grown up with an eclectic collection of influences and an all-embracing sense of ourselves. We have grown to become a wonderful mongrel of a nation. By rejecting genetic and cultural purity in favour of a multicultural hybrid we have bred a society based on a set of uncertainties and questions rather than knowns. Our traditions come and go, our national narratives are contestable and we have become a country of bruisers ready for a good natured punch up. We sometimes don’t know the rules well enough and need a bit of biffo to test where we stand.
I have to admit I don’t mind a bit of metaphorical biffo. I think this is part of the role of an artist – to reflect the character of a country and to challenge and test accepted norms.
ROLE OF THE ARTIST
The Creative Thinker is constantly imagining a vocabulary for the future. Imagining an alternative to the status quo and building a tension between what is known and what is just out of reach. The Creative Thinker spends their time avoiding rigid judgement in favour of that next evolutionary step, a step that brings with it innovation and change. The Creative Thinker must possess the child-like qualities of play whilst simultaneously engaging in the mercantile and organisational realities of advanced societies. The Creative Thinker engages with the aesthetic, cultural and material world to reflect where we are and advocate progress to where we could be. George Bernard Shaw is quoted as having said "There is no drama without conflict; no conflict without something to decide." This drama takes the form of debate and engagement so that a fork in the road can be identified and the audience encouraged to decide which path is right for them.
Artists are a distillation of this creative thinking. Artists are by their very nature ratbags and fringe-dwellers, dissenters and protestors. A lone voice on the progressive edge of a society. Artists are constantly having to confront and manage their disappointment in a world that does not always recognise the validity of their views, appreciate their talent or support them unconditionally. It is the nature of all those in progressive leadership to be disappointed and disappointing for often our vision outstrips and outpaces the ability of a society to be led. Though artists have incredible visions of the future which goes beyond the changes of fashion and boredom with the status quo, visions that are more akin to futurists in their abilities to open our minds and souls to new ways of seeing the world around, we have not been known for our abilities to negotiate change and often we have needed curators, managers, translators and interpreters to help connect the vision of the future with an audience.
Since time immemorial the Artist has relied on the largesse of the tribe to allow them space in a society to practise their craft. To be excused from the day to day gathering of food and collective survival responsibilities of the whole tribe so that they could perfect skills, reflect on tribal cultural needs and devise distractions and engagements with a sense of themselves. Patronage has been a structural support for artists since we first stood on two feet. Be it a collective undertaking or the need for specialist artists, the cultural artefacts and practices of a people have become the signifier of an advanced society. All great societies have supported artists to become great, elevating them to be high priests of culture and storytelling. Every great social endeavour has been enhanced or recorded through having an artistic parallel. Think of crowns and jewels, architecture, rock art recording the arrival of different waves of European explorers on these shores, religious iconography, epic poems and songs of great battles and creation.
From Tribal practices within Indigenous peoples across the world, here on this country, European models of patronage where the rich exercised their wealth through signs of artistic knowledge and alignment with these outliers of a society: societies have advanced or stagnated in parallel with their artistic endeavours.
Patronage could sometimes lead to incredible stagnation as societies set out to control artists and harness them to promote certain ideas and glorify the leaders. In recent centuries the glorification of royalty and leaders created a form of propaganda that rings false to a modern audience. The grand heroic painting of a leader on his horse…you get the idea.
In recent times governments have taken on a greater role in supporting artists. The 20th century saw the growth of publicly endowed galleries, theatres, concert halls and festivals throughout the world. Admittedly infrastructure was often pursued before the financial support of artists but one begat the other eventually. Successive governments at all levels and all political persuasions have found ways of patronising the arts as a sign of advancement and social legacy. They have embraced the intrinsic role of artists to be creative thinkers, social provocateurs and cultural canaries in the mineshafts of it’s citizenry.
With government support and a post war environment of the mid 20th century came less control over the artists as elected representatives developed a more hands off approach to avoid accusations of propaganda and social engineering.
‘Arms Length’ decision making has taken hold as the norm. To maintain the role of the artist in our modern society our major funding bodies engage ‘experts’ from the field to help shape policy, collections and funding decisions. This allows artists to be independent of the political imperatives of the day, removing the temptation to use artists as an arm of social engineering. But I think this has come with an expectation that artists stay rooted in their community and effectively play their role that justifies the investment of time and resources that the tribe allots them.
In recent years successive governments have started to erode this position through targeted funds, ‘dollar for dollar’ incentive deals, and general rewards for different behaviours within the funding environment. Increasing levels of interest and intervention by ministers have occurred as governments of all persuasions deal with competing priorities, increasing demands on a shrinking resource pool and the need to balance budgets. Subtle and not so subtle signals are given to companies and institutions to find alternatives to public funds to do their core roles. The larger the organisation the greater the reliance on box office, earned income and the recent move to philanthropy and sponsorship. I know at QTC we have experienced a 50% growth in sponsorship in the past four years, a 150% increase in philanthropy, a 20% increase in audiences. Though government Arts grants are still the greatest supporter of the company most of the almost $3 million growth in the company’s turnover has come from increases in earned income and alternative sources of support.
This has given the company a great deal of flexibility due to the freedom from some ‘red tape’ attached to government sources….but I see Government red tape as a reflection of the public accountability functions with one eye on artistic and community values so I don’t totally disagree with it; but are we replacing this form of accountability with a need for artistic companies to reflect the values of those who are giving the money?
Does this appetite and reliance on new monies from the private sector create a timidity amongst our companies and eroded our ability to dissent, offend and challenge?
Have we become quiet and compliant to the will of a new breed of patrons and taste makers? Ralph Myers and David Pledger have both outlined the fact that amongst our larger arts organisations the Chairs of Boards and the Boards themselves have become increasingly populated by business people, private philanthropists and managers. This is seen as an attempt by companies and governments to build non-grant income for companies. But has it shaped the artistic will of a company either directly or indirectly?
Has this created a world where artists don’t fit in? Or created a mould where artists are not trusted?
Have we become fearful of artists like Bill Henson or Barrie Kosky or an artist who will offend and polarise an audience?
I fundamentally don’t believe this is the case, but I think we need to be vigilant. I think if artists consider themselves as equals to board members, philanthropists, sponsorship managers, believe in the worth of their work and ambitions, then a dialogue can occur without necessarily compromising their artistic intent.
But I have seen a growing trend of late where the artist feels disempowered in these discussions. Where artists feel that they cannot achieve their best, based on an assumption of obstacles. The assumption of disempowerment is as destructive as any actual reality. We’re not talking about discussion, debate and differences of opinion, I’m talking about where people assume disagreement, and a point of view before even testing it and don’t engage in the discussion chooses to be silent rather than face a bit of biffo.
I come from a collaborative art form and an Indigenous community so I think I am all for a good debate about what is the ‘right’ way forward together.
I’ll just digress for a short time. When I was 24 I ran an Indigenous theatre company in Brisbane called Kooemba Jdarra – which means Good Ground. Deborah Mailman and I and Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell and a huge range of artists worked with the company over the years. We did a huge range of work in communities, theatres, career development and commissioning. We had an all-Indigenous board and in the mid-90’s we were hoping to expand our work and needed increased financial support. The Board were discussing options to raise funds and our attention turned to sponsorship. Now you can imagine the issues that arose around taking support from a fictional alcohol company, or a hypothetical mining company… we talked about approaching the Commonwealth Bank and one board member pointed out the role of that bank in the Queensland stolen wages saga of the 20th Century. The company was ultimately in pursuit of a mythical ‘clean money’...in the end it was hard to identify the notion of clean money. Even the idea of needing money and speaking English was a contestable assault on Indigenous sovereignty. In the abstract it was impossible to identify clean money. We hit a kind of paralysis of integrity. Any move was a checkmate because we didn’t agree with the game we were playing.
Concepts of brand association and personal integrity stopped the work we were wanting to make from occurring. We found it impossible to tell the stories we wanted to tell to our community and the broader community because we assumed things in the abstract that we didn’t know we could do.
Flash forward 20 years. I am back in Brisbane and running the Queensland Theatre Company. We have a project that was so big that there was no way we could afford to do it alone.
Enter Silbelco. It’s great to have a table of you here today. Thanks for coming.
Now Silbelco is a family-owned company with mining interests across the globe. One of those mines is a sandmining operation on Stradbroke Island….I call it Minjeeribah…it is my tribal Lands. I must admit to feeling conflicted about this potential relationship. On one hand the notion of engaging with a mining company brought up all this conversation two decades earlier but on the other hand my family have been engaged in the sand mining business for all the time it had been occurring on the island. My father talked about how he and his father did test drilling when he was a child. As one of 13 my father gave up schooling at ten to help provide for the growing family and when my grandfather died, leaving his brood to fend for themselves, it was the church, Legacy and the sandmining that helped get them through those first few years without the welfare breaking the family apart.
The project we needed the money for was Black Diggers a show of such immense importance to the nation’s history that even with the support of the Sydney Festival and extra support from the Australia Council its future was dubious. Black Diggers is about the stories of Indigenous soldiers who went to and returned from WW1.
My great Aunt is Kath Walker Oodgeroo Noonuccal and I remember her saying to me once that traditionally the natural landscape is there to feed us and feed our art. Convenient memory…thanks Aunty Kath.
But it set me on a journey of discussion about values…I talked to elders and community members. I can tell you now there is no consensus on this topic. Blackfellas are like a pack of whitefellas sometimes—no one can agree who should be the leader, who has the numbers and what policy is the right one to dump and which version we’re up to. Sometimes I would rather eat an onion than have these conversations.
In the end I stood by the decision to accept the support of Sibelco, because ultimately the intent of the work was to express an Indigenous perspective and celebrate the contribution of those Indigenous men who served and sacrificed.
We were honest about the difficulties and the intentions of the work and Sibelco is a fantastic supporter. I mean it. They don’t try to tell me what to do, they don’t try to make propaganda or corrupt the intention of the artistic vision. They are not deaf to the concerns in the communities in which they work and attempt to create more value for those people they work with. Not to assuage guilt, or mediate bad press but because they believe it is a responsibility of a corporate citizen.
This decision seems to many a betrayal of some rainbow alliance of green, black, pink and any other assumed relationship but it is not for others to decide what is right for me.
I wrote a Platform Paper last year which is published by Currency House, and one of the topics I wrote about was the boycott of the Sydney Biennale by a number of artists in 2014. Now I respect each person’s right to navigate the minefield of association and sponsorship as they see is right, it is a complex issue and I do not know all the arguments involved but I personally feel that boycott is more about a battle of brands than it is about making a difference around a social concern. The real challenge is to engage in a debate and create work that reflects that debate. The silence of the artist is an abrogation of our basic role in our community. If you believe in an issue enough make your art a reflection on the issue.
If the organisation or the sponsor is not making demands on the work then can you not accept the support from the sponsor; but at the same time create a critical environment within the work or in a discussion about the work that promotes alternative views to those of the donor? For me that is the key. It’s the ‘arms length’ that helps us accept monies from a government that we may or may not agree with. A government of a country that has systematically disenfranchised Indigenous Australians, promulgated obviously racist policies over the years and proven themselves ineffectual advocates for change; but I will accept their support to challenge them and give voice to the opposing side of the debate.
The true drama of sponsorship comes from when you (as an artist) can express the reasons you want to make the work, your values and the stories you want to tell. When you can dedicate your life to engaging in important work that takes the world to another place of investigation and growth. And the sponsor or philanthropist can do the same thing—they can articulate why they want to share their treasure. What the values being expressed through sponsorship and philanthropy are—and what they expect from the relationship.
It is not a transaction of master and servant, it is a conversation of equals, it is not a mendicant meets Midas relationship, it must be where we talk about what we want to achieve and if there is irreconcilable disagreement we can move on without penalty or prejudice for any future conversation.
I promise to be articulate and forthcoming, challenging and equal to the debate if those who are willing to support artists are open to discussion and discourse, robust challenges and believe in the role artists play in our society.
"There is no drama without conflict; no conflict without something to decide."