2016 / Saturday

Every bit counts: the art of giving

Hamish Wallace

Penelope Seidler

Penelope Seidler

Phillip Keir

Phillip Keir

Find a passion and get involved! That’s the philosophy shared by Penelope Seidler AM and Phillip Keir, two of our leading philanthropists, in a wide-ranging discussion on the current state of philanthropy and what motivates acts of giving.

“The most important thing is to work out what interests you personally and what you can bring to the cause, because philanthropy is more than just money – it should be about bringing skills, a certain attitude and an ability to take risks,” says Mr Keir, a self-described “arts incubator” and cultural entrepreneur.

Penelope Seidler agrees. “We talk about ‘giving’ and people think it’s about money, but it’s also giving time and energy. It’s not just writing a cheque – it’s giving yourself to the things that you support and the things that matter to you.”

Mr Keir’s passion is dance. After working in theatre and the performing arts here and overseas, he moved to the commercial sector, founding one of Australia’s largest consumer magazine companies.

In 2004, he established the Keir Foundation to provide grants for new and emerging artists, and to foster innovation and excellence in the arts.  After his years in business, starting the Foundation felt like “coming home” to the arts community, and allowed him to become involved in ways that might not otherwise have been possible.

“One of the great attractions of giving, is that it opens doors for you and you get to be involved in the conversations that make a difference,” he said.

Ms Seidler also has a passion – education. As an architect, businesswoman and arts patron, she wears many hats – a director of the architectural firm Harry Seidler & Associates, a director of the Biennale of Sydney, and a member of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to name a few.

She is also a passionate advocate for education. In 2014 she donated $1 million to the University of New South Wales to establish the Seidler Chair in the Practice of Architecture. Her donation also funds PhD scholarships and an international design studio for graduate students.

Ms Seidler is committed to architecture education, and hopes the Chair will allow future generations of architects to learn from the industry’s best.

“Philanthropy allows you to get actively involved in the causes that matter to you, and gives you some clout,” she said.

And it doesn’t have to be much. “People hear the word ‘philanthropy’ and they think of these huge sums of money,” she said. “But you realise that you can do significant things with relatively small amounts. We can all do something.”

Private support may need to play a larger role in the arts, with the most recent Federal Budget providing no additional arts funding and no new policy initiatives or programs. This follows last year’s Budget, which saw cuts to the Australia Council.

That is where Penelope Seidler believes private donations can help. “I think governments and public authorities should provide more support but if they don’t, we have to help them along a bit,” she said.

And unlike government funding, Mr Keir says, one of the benefits of private philanthropy – once described as the “venture capital” of arts funding – is its agility. The money can be used to respond to emerging opportunities, and allows more calculated risk-taking.

Despite being genuinely humble about their contributions, they each acknowledge a degree of self-interest in their approach to giving, albeit with the best of intentions.

“There is a level of self-interest, but it’s not because I want to be seen to be giving,” she said. “It’s just because it allows me to be involved.”

Her generosity is also a way of recognising the memory of her late husband, Harry Seidler. “Having the name ‘Seidler’ attached to the Chair is important, because he deserves to be remembered,” she said. “His name is synonymous with architecture.”

Along with the Keir Foundation, Mr Keir has established the Keir Choreography Award, which aims to increase the profile of contemporary Australian dance, by commissioning and presenting new works.

“The name is important for that award because it is a way of branding it and making it seem ‘bigger’,” he said.

Penelope Seidler has one final piece of advice. “If you’ve got the money, give it away while you’re alive. What’s the point of hanging on to it?

“Giving it away allows you to see the results and the benefits, and lets you be involved.”