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primrose potter 600x400Primrose Lady PotterHow could the arts exist without philanthropists? According to the speakers at THA’s Philanthropy event, it can’t—and nor should it.

On Saturday, 19 October 2019, Theatre Heritage Australia in conjunction with Arts Centre Melbourne, presented our third event at The Channel for 2019, when we welcomed three guest speakers who offered different perspectives on the topic of philanthropy in the arts: Primrose, Lady Potter AC, philanthropist and arts administrator; Jack Fowles, Philanthropy Executive, Private Giving at Arts Centre Melbourne; and Rupert Sherwood, Director of Development at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Philanthropy takes many guises. It is not just about wealthy donors giving generously to their favourite theatre companies or institutions, but how those theatre companies and institutions give back to the community.

Victoria is lucky. We have a rich history of philanthropy. As a result, we enjoy a rich mix of cultural activities, from theatre and art to festivals and community programmes. And more than ever, thanks to philanthropy, there’s something for everyone—the arts are becoming more and more inclusive in their outlook and arts institutions are becoming more aware of the importance of telling Australian stories.

Lady Potter is highly regarded as a philanthropist and arts administrator. In 1988, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for service to the arts and the community. In 2003 she was promoted to Companion of the Order (AC) for leadership and for encouragement of support for critical community growth through fundraising and philanthropy in the arts, sciences, education and social welfare.

Lady Potter’s late husband, Sir Ian Potter, was a pioneer of philanthropy, establishing the Ian Potter Foundation in 1964, the first public charitable fund created under an amendment to the Income Tax Assessment Act which allowed the Foundation to receive tax deductible donations. Today, it is one of Australia’s leading philanthropic organisations. The Foundations largest grants include $10 million to The Australian Ballet; $15 million towards the establishment of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Gallery of Australian Art in Federation Square; $10 million to the State Library of Victoria for the restoration of Queen's Hall; and over half a million to the Melbourne Theatre Company.

In her speech, Lady Potter talked about her husband’s legacy, but also spoke about the history of philanthropy in Victoria, tracing it back to the early Scots settlers who brought with them the philanthropic ideals of the Scottish enlightenment.

Following on from Lady Potter, Arts Centre Melbourne's Jack Fowles told us about the various programmes that exist within the organisation. Apart from educational programmes involving workshops with scriptwriters, directors, designers and theatre experts, there exists the possibility to commission productions and collaborate with the Australian Performing Arts Collection's curators and officers, there are opportunities for disadvantaged schools and children with disabilities to attend “relaxed performances”—this is the term Jack used. “No child should be excluded from remarkable experiences due to circumstances beyond their control.” The performing arts can make a huge difference in the lives of all students.

So it can certainly be said that philanthropy plays a critical role in extending the reach and impact of Arts Centre Melbourne's four philanthropic pillars: access, education, commissions and collections.

Rupert Sherwood, MTC's Director of Development, asked “Why fund the arts?” The answers were clear and valid—to see, to contemplate the world differently and to provide entertainment to those, possibly ‘time poor’, who make valuable contributions to the workforce. Also, and most important, fiction and story-telling can often bring a message home more forcefully and effectively than dry fact.

MTC provides $5.00 tickets for disadvantaged families and students, travel subsidies for country school groups, plus educational programmes for aspiring artists. With the NEXT STAGE Writers' Programme, MTC has set a new benchmark for Australian writing, providing resources for commissioning, work-shopping and developing new plays. Residencies, which run for up to three years, include the involvement in everything to do with the production of a play—this is also a salaried role and made possible by MTC's Playwrights’ Giving Circle.

Philanthropy, particularly in the theatre, helps bridge the gap between government grants and subscriptions, helping companies maintain the high standards of artistic expression that we have come to expect, but also to take risks, push boundaries and go that little bit further. As Lady Potter pointed out, we are very fortunate, philanthropy in Australia is generous and serving, and as a result our arts culture is vibrant, with Australian talent and Australian stories taking centre-stage.


Primrose Potter

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A section of The Channel audience, October 2019.

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Primrose Lady Potter