Philanthropic support for capital works amplifies cultural benefits

When governments, arts organisations and philanthropy combine to support artistic vision by building legacy assets, it can result in extraordinary partnerships that spark new momentum and creative energy across the sector.

Philanthropic support for capital works amplifies cultural benefits


Philanthropy has provided the performing arts with legacy assets that often pass unnoticed or are taken for granted, such as The Australian Ballet centre and its car park, Musica Viva head office, Belvoir and the Opera Centre in Sydney, yet these assets from the recent past, as well as those currently being built help underpin the organisations' operations and enable further growth.

Much philanthropic support year on year is directed to the critical creation of work, advancement of artists’ careers and arts education (reported on separately in this e-news), but behind the scenes, there is also a lot of heavy lifting going on.

Governments here and overseas recognise that vibrant and successful towns and cities are increasingly characterised as being home to ambitious arts and cultural scenes, which contribute to building safe, connected and inspiring places that people want to live in and visit. Philanthropists have partnered with arts organisations and government to realise significant capital works that enrich communities’ experience of the arts and build critical infrastructure for the sector.

Cultural infrastructure is both the tangible iconic gathering places, rehearsal rooms and workshops, as well as the intangible skills, expertise and resources that create the environment to nurture artists and facilitate the making and presenting of great works. Both are essential — an acoustically engineered concert hall is only truly valued when it is home to great music, and the philanthropic support for new works and for subsidising tickets to enable greater access to works, can leave a legacy in hearts and minds for years to come.

Bold, ambitious vision can also create a legacy of a more concrete nature. We will take a look at just some of the value harnessed through recent capital fund raising campaigns.

The power of partnerships

Infrastructure investment helps deliver urban regeneration and regional economic development. Local governments have been the heavy lifters in the creation of regional community arts centres, and most state governments take the lead when it comes to building major performing arts centres, but the MPAs have — in partnership with government and donors — also been building the asset base, some for a very long time, to support the making of performing artworks and to contribute to audience access and the cultural vibrancy of designated arts precincts.

The funding of Sydney’s $207 million Walsh Bay Arts and Cultural Precinct will ensure MPAs, such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare, have accommodation, rehearsal and performance spaces befitting their international status.

The redevelopment of Walsh Bay has provided a springboard for further support of individual capital projects. Sydney Dance Company received a private donation of $750k towards the renovation of their studios in the precinct. The NSW government committed $30m towards Sydney Theatre Company’s refurbishment, an amount that will be matched, dollar for dollar by philanthropic funding raised by STC — most of it already in place. The STC’s Wharf Renewal Project includes modernised audience facilities and theatres with flexible seating configurations, sound-proofed, full-sized rehearsal spaces, improved artist dressing room and two new accessible public entries.

Transformational features planned for the ACO’s new space include a 300-seat concert studio, a rehearsal studio, a unique event space, an audio-visual recording studio and five new dedicated practice rooms.

‘Our location within the vibrant artistic hub of the revitalised Walsh Bay Arts Precinct will enable collaboration with fellow artists, including of course, our nearest neighbours, on a whole new level. This will have an enormous impact on our education, outreach, performance, new and diverse presentation programs and on the cultural life of Sydney’, says Richard Evans, Australian Chamber Orchestra MD.

The realisation of ACO’s long-held desire of having its own home has prompted generous philanthropic support for the company’s new premises project.

‘The extraordinary artistry and creative talent of the ACO is reason enough to support this project. But much more, we had to be convinced that the ACO has the leadership and organisational skills to use the money sensibly and strategically. Moving to a purpose-built Pier 2/3 complex will take the ACO to a whole new level and will allow it to assume a position of even greater influence in the cultural life of Sydney and beyond.’ Rod Cameron and Margaret Gibbs — ACO patrons.

Bell Shakespeare’s move to the precinct, also with the support of philanthropists through the company’s Infinite Space capital campaign, will be historic. Executive DirectorGill Perkins explains, ‘For the first time in Bell Shakespeare’s history, we’ll have fully accessible office, rehearsal and workshop spaces in one footprint. Our large rehearsal studio will double as a performance venue, supporting the presentation of smaller, riskier and collaborative works, whilst our second studio will become a hub for education activity.’

Gill adds that the move is important for many reasons. ‘Having our artists, production and administrative staff, students, teachers and patrons together in one space, provides us with enormous efficiencies. From this new creative engine-room we’ll be able to further develop and grow our mainstage and education programs so that we can share Shakespeare and other great works more widely in schools, theatres and communities across Australia. With fully accessible facilities we’ll be able to build greater connections with audiences and encourage broader participation in all our programs.’

In Queensland, the state government’s vision of becoming an Asia Pacific powerhouse prompted a funding boost in 2016 of $1.2m annually to Queensland Ballet to fast track the company’s growth; as well as a 50-year extension of QB’s contract at the Thomas Dixon Centre (TDC) to give the company the scope to redesign the facility. This project has also received significant funding support from state and federal governments, and from generous supporters and donors. The project was kick-started by a visionary gift from The Ian Potter Foundation in 2014.

The aim of the $35 million redevelopment of TDC is to create a landmark ballet performing arts destination, an inspirational environment to inspire peak performance and nurture creativity. The increased size and functionality will allow the Company to offer wider and more frequent community programs, further develop their education offerings for schools and people of all ages, host Queensland Ballet Academy showcases, facilitate collaborations with small to medium arts organisations and independent artists, and make this space available for the wider arts community.

Executive Director Dilshani Weerasinghe said the new facility would be equipped with state of the art technology that will enable the company to extend its digital reach regionally, nationally and internationally.

‘The building will also be designed to the internally recognised WELL building standards that aim for best practice people-centred and environmental excellence in all areas of design. It will boast a large wellness studio that will become home to the performance medicine team and provide world-class recovery, strengthening and injury prevention facilities for the dancers.

An anonymous donor motivated to give to this capital campaign explained that, ‘Thanks to Li, Queensland Ballet has become a very large and important part of the Queensland fine arts scene and desperately requires upgraded facilities. As I believe in investing in bricks and mortar, giving to this capital campaign is the perfect way for me to contribute to the future of Queensland Ballet.’

The state government has also invested $2m towards the redevelopment of the Bille Brown Theatre in Brisbane. The theatre started out as a studio space and rehearsal room, but is now used by Queensland Theatre for workshops and performances as well. The refurbishment will increase seating capacity from 228 to 351, upgrade the amenities and improve disability access, giving the theatre much-needed additional capacity.

Sam Strong, Artistic Director Queensland Theatre sees the new theatre as so much more than a building. ‘It is the means by which an exciting new vision for Queensland Theatre can come to life. Having our own, sophisticated and intimate space will greatly enhance our ability to create world-class contemporary drama while at the same time giving audiences a comfortable and engaging experience. It will also facilitate easy transfer of our work to similar sized stages around Australia, giving our artists and our work national exposure. Finally, the theatre will be a very welcome addition to Brisbane’s arts infrastructure (the city’s first corner stage), a resource that can be shared with smaller companies and independent artists.’

Cass George, a donor to the project, explains her support. ‘My husband and I have a very strong belief that we must support the arts in Queensland. We think they are going to flourish, and we hope that through our leadership, others will also come on board. We're very proud of what Queensland Theatre is going to provide onstage and off. We'd like to see a situation evolve where the people of Brisbane, even the greater population of Queensland, won't want to miss a Queensland Theatre production.’

Partnerships and philanthropic relationships have played an important part in The Australian Ballet’s history. The Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre, home to one of the world’s busiest ballet companies, was originally funded some 30 years ago by a combination of company funds, government and philanthropic support. The current upgrade to the centre draws on funding from the Commonwealth Government, donations worth a combined $6m, and an $8 million pledge made in 2010 by the Ian Potter Foundation for the redevelopment of the company’s headquarters, education and other projects. The upgrade accommodates the growth of the company from 77 to 90 dancers and includes a 19 m x 26 m rehearsal studio, a health and wellbeing centre with consulting rooms for the medical staff, gymnasium, physiotherapy suite, recovery room with ice-water bath, and a pilates studio.

TAB took possession of their state-of-the-art Production Centre in Altona in 2012. The centre houses the company’s $40-million collection of costumes, sets, scenery and props using the latest automated technology. The land and building was funded by a $10m loan from the Victorian State Government while the fitout was funded by a $2m grant from the Federal Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport. Donors pledged some $1.8 million towards the project.

Long-term value of infrastructure projects

The motivation to begin a capital project can vary from a passionate desire to save a beloved performance space, building the company’s asset base for future financial stability, creating greater accessibility or exposure, or building professional capacity. Providing financial support for specific capital projects carries a big price tag, but the benefits to creating a legacy in this way are immense,

Evidence of the long-term benefits of philanthropic support for such projects is not hard to find. Imagine how impoverished Sydney would be without Belvoir St. Theatre and Company B — one of Australia’s most innovative and acclaimed theatre companies. The motivation for capital investment in this case, was a passionate desire to save the Nimrod Theatre from demolition in 1984, and to protect part of Sydney theatre heritage and infrastructure after decades in which many grand old theatres were demolished. Arts entertainment and media professionals joined with theatre lovers to form a syndicate of 600 shareholders to buy the former factory in Surry Hills left behind by Nimrod Theatre, and so Belvoir St Theatre (Company A) and Company B - the producing company now called ‘Belvoir’, were established.

Executive Director of Belvoir Sue Donnelly explains, ‘Other than a lick of paint and a new neon sign, there weren’t funds to improve the theatre, so 10 years later Belvoir embarked on an ambitious capital works program to upgrade the theatre and to build a rehearsal space and provide reasonable office accommodation. Sydney City Council’s rejection of the architect’s plans meant that Belvoir needed to find a separate building for the rehearsal rooms and staff offices.’ A warehouse at 18 Elizabeth St was purchased and redeveloped in tandem with the theatre upgrade.

‘What had started as a $5M project ended up being a $12M project to develop the two buildings. At the time it was the largest performing arts fundraising appeal in the country. The Company, out of necessity, adopted fundraising with great gusto ably led by its Board, and some $3.6 million was raised from individual donations. These stellar efforts were assisted by strong ticket sales fromKeating!The Musical.

The infrastructure project secured Belvoir’s home in Surry Hills, assisted in its strategic direction and continued to make this important resource available to the local and theatre communities. Many independent and small to medium companies regularly rehearse and / or perform at Belvoir. Further many people who are unwaged, as well as schools from disadvantaged areas, benefit from being able to attend free performances at Belvoir.

‘Belvoir is one of the few performing arts companies in Australia that owns its home. It is also one of the renowned Australian theatre companies with a national and international reputation. Nearly 35 years old, it defies all logic with its funny corner stage and its location up a narrow side street in a locale surrounded by public housing. Yet it works beautifully and every year thousands of people come from far and wide enjoy its rough magic’, says Sue.

Philanthropist Sam Meers of the Nelson Meers Foundation provided funding to Belvoir as part of a challenge grant set by David Gonski. He says the project was significant for the Foundation for a number of reasons.

‘Firstly, it was an opportunity to provide “game-changing” funding for one of Australia’s most important theatre companies, delivering Belvoir not only a renovated theatre building, but its own administration and rehearsal space. We hoped this would give the Company a solid asset base for the future. Furthermore, given the important role Belvoir plays within the performing arts sector, we knew the redevelopment would also deliver benefits for the sector more broadly.

‘Secondly, we were attracted by the opportunity to participate in a collaborative capital funding initiative, which we believed would create an important precedent for cultural fundraising in Australia.’

The Melbourne Theatre Company searched for a new home for 12 years. When Melbourne University built the $55m Southbank Theatre in 2009, it was predicted that the new addition to Melbourne’s Southbank Cultural Precinct would empower the MTC to reassert itself as one of Australia’s flagship performing arts companies.

The two new performance spaces — the 500-seat Sumner Theatre and the 160-seat Lawler Studio — opened up the breadth of work possible. For the first time in MTC’s history, the company had the right theatre to produce any play for any sized audience. Down the road, philanthropy also supported the dramatic makeover of MTC’s headquarters, increasing the capacity of workshops, rehearsals space and efficiencies of the company’s entire operations.

The West Australian Ballet is another example of what philanthropic support for infrastructure can achieve. The company relocated to their current home following a move that took four and a half years and $12 million dollars. The motivation here was the need for space — the number of dancers had doubled to 32 in just five years — and to realise a repertoire-led strategic plan that was to place the WAB on a more secure footing. Today, the company enjoys an impressive reputation for superior classical and contemporary ballet and contemporary dance of the highest level. The centre is regularly opened to the public for behind the scenes insight into the performance preparations of the dancers and as a cultural centre of excellence and providing studio facilities to community and commercial groups from local, national and international companies.

Philanthropic support of capital works can also enable and enrich the greater arts ecology. Over 70 years ago, the founders of Musica Viva had the foresight to strive to own the building in which they operated. In doing so, they secured their dream of becoming a hub for Australian music. Last year, the company sold their Surry Hills office and moved into the new Musica Viva House, which features the purpose-built Janette Hamilton Studio. Named for the patron who made it possible, the studio will provide video resources for educational and audience engagement programs, offer rehearsal space for the company’s touring programs, and present teacher professional development courses. It will serve as a permanent space for artist development programs, provide a workshop and rehearsal space for visiting International Concert Series artists and will be available at minimal cost to the small-to-medium arts sector.

Philanthropy has played a critical role in ensuring diverse access and participation as well as supporting growth in arts education, professional development of Australian artists and the art form. Building cultural infrastructure through capital works is just one aspect of what philanthropy has contributed to the arts sector and the wider community. The question is — what’s next? Whatever it is, it is bound to be transformative. Watch this space!


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