Money for arts’ sake — how bankers hold sway over Australia’s cultural institutions
STC chairman Ian Narev did not join other board members at the opening of A Cheery Soul. (Supplied: STC/Daniel Boud)
The nation’s busiest theatre troupe, the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), currently has a season of Patrick White’s bittersweet comedy A Cheery Soul pulling in the crowds.
When the play opened at the Sydney Opera House’s drama theatre on November 9, the company’s chairman, former Commonwealth Bank chief executive Ian Narev, did not join other board members and STC leaders in the best seats in the theatre.
His absence was not remarked upon because, unlike his predecessor David Gonski, Mr Narev generally eschews opening nights.
Yet he is among the numerous corporate leaders who now sit on Australian arts boards, filling roles that are not remunerated — but are laden with other benefits.
Former Commonwealth Bank boss Ian Narev has stayed away from the limelight during his time as STC chairman. (AAP: Dean Lewins)
Trustees are wined, dined and pandered to with free tickets and invitations to exclusive events that provide networking opportunities and entertainment.
They are then expected, in return, to champion the institution to government, stakeholders, sponsors and donors.
They also have governance and fundraising responsibilities and oversight of key appointments.
Some chairs bring a passion for the arts to the role and are deeply engaged — especially those who have overseen major fundraising, construction and growth phases at their institutions.
For example, at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), David Gonski’s chairmanship is understood to have boosted both the $100 million raised and the government funding pledged for construction of a new wing.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, banker Simon Mordant has been a highly engaged chairman for 11 years during which he drove a $53 million capital campaign to redevelop the building.
Complaints about influx of banks, lawyers on arts boards
In recent years, however, there has been a chorus of complaints from arts stakeholders about the sheer number of bankers and lawyers being appointed to arts boards.
The accusation is that the corporate overload is leading to an erosion of culture — and, lately, of good governance.
A defining trait of Mr Narev’s tenure as STC chairman is his low profile, at least in relation to the STC.
He doesn’t schmooze donors and supporters in the foyer, and the former child actor issued only a short statement to explain the abrupt and muzzled departure of STC’s freshly-appointed artistic director Jonathan Church in 2016 after just a few months.
He didn’t speak in the STC’s defence when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published rumours about Geoffrey Rush’s alleged behaviour during an STC play, which Rush denied and is now suing for defamation over.
Australia’s busiest not-for-profit theatre group last year reported $36.9 million in box office revenue but also the biggest deficit in its 39-year history, a $4.2 million budget blowout.
Mr Narev’s appointment as STC chairman in 2015 coincided with a tumultuous time at the Commonwealth Bank, which resulted in his eventual departure from the bank.
Arts trustees faced royal commission scrutiny
A week after A Cheery Soul opened, the curtain rose on a rather more electric production in Sydney — the last public hearings of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.
This is a show Mr Narev was unable to avoid.
At the Commonwealth Bank, he presided over the CommInsure and AUSTRAC money laundering scandals and, at the hearings in Sydney, his successor Matt Comyn told the commission Mr Narev urged him to “temper your sense of justice” when he sought to end junk insurance sales.
When asked if Mr Narev continued to enjoy its support, a spokeswoman said “the board has no comment to make at this time”.
During the royal commission hearings in May, then-AMP chairman Catherine Brenner stood down from her role as a trustee of the AGNSW after it was revealed the board of the financial giant she chaired misled financial regulator ASIC over the fee-for-no-service scandal.
Catherine Brenner resigned from her role at the Art Gallery of NSW after being embroiled in a scandal at AMP. (AAP: Daniel Munoz)
She missed the opportunity to gather with other trustees to judge the winner of AGNSW’s most important annual jamboree, the Archibald Prize.
A spokeswoman for NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin confirmed Ms Brenner’s resignation had since been tendered and accepted.
Industry insiders slam lack of expertise
Twenty years ago, a significant restructure of arts funding resulted in larger government grants, especially for major companies and institutions, as long as those bodies sought to match those funds with more philanthropic and sponsorship funds.
Enter the bankers and lawyers.
Yet recent figures compiled by the Australian Major Performing Arts Group reveal that, while donations to the arts are growing, sponsorship funding — with the exception of in-kind sponsorship — has actually declined in real terms since 2001.
This is why arts stakeholders are beginning to ask why corporate Australia has been given so many seats at the table.
In a public lecture in 2014, Belvoir Theatre Company’s then-artistic director Ralph Myers warned the influx of corporate managers into the arts posed a “grave threat to the artistic life of this country”.
Recently, at the screen industry’s annual Screen Forever conference in Melbourne, producer of ABC TV’s Gruen and managing director of one of Australia’s biggest screen production companies CJZ, Nick Murray, lashed the board of the federal government’s screen industry funder, Screen Australia.
The Screen Australia board’s lack of sector experience was an “uncomfortable truth” that Mr Murray said the industry wasn’t willing to discuss.
“The Screen Australia board, who are largely bankers — although there are some good people on it but not many — is chaired by Nicholas Moore from Macquarie who knows nothing about the industry,” he said.
Mr Moore recently left Macquarie after more than 30 years.
Mr Murray explained this lack of expertise had serious consequences, such as Screen Australia’s decision to classify the BBC as an independent producer in Australia, despite the fact the British public broadcaster operates five channels here.
The BBC can now compete with Australian-owned and run businesses for a limited pool of public production funding.
Chief executive of peak body Screen Producers Australia, Matthew Deaner, said unlike Mr Moore’s predecessor, ex-IBM boss Glen Boreham, in the three years Mr Moore had chaired Screen Australia he never attended an industry conference.
“To my knowledge he hasn’t spoken on behalf of the industry,” Mr Deaner said.
A Screen Australia spokesman responded, saying, “Screen Australia is fortunate to have a diverse board led by Nicholas Moore who brings internationally regarded financial acumen to the agency.”
Mr Moore is also chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust and did not publicly defend the Opera House chief executive Louise Herron when she was attacked by broadcaster Alan Jones in October.
This was despite the fact Ms Herron’s decision not to broadcast a horse race barrier draw on the building’s famous sails was governed by a longstanding policy on the heritage-protected site she manages.
Veteran arts leader Michael Lynch said, “it is time for major arts organisations to have people who absolutely understand the artform as a prerequisite to chair the board”.
Mr Lynch chairs Brisbane arts company Circa and has led many major arts organisations, including the Australia Council, the STC and the Sydney Opera House.
“I don’t know any arts organisations that behaved in a way all the banks and other financial institutions have,” he said.
“In terms of good governance and ethical behaviour, it’s [the arts] organisations that have set a good example — it’s all back the front.”
Mr Narev and Mr Moore were approached for comment.