By Adjunct Professor Melinda Rackham
Offering a tax-exempt twelve-month stipend of US$50,000, international institution fees for an academic year, return airfares, insurances and assurances of exposure and professional connection, a Samstag Scholarship is often labelled a ‘golden passport to success’ in Australian art circles. Undoubtedly, in the 25 years since its inception, 140 Australian visual artists have benefited from this generous philanthropic bequest - many becoming household names.
However in 1990 when the seemingly modest American couple Anne and Gordon Samstag bequested US$5.5 million – effectively to the South Australian School of Art through a Florida-based trust – to establish an international artist scholarship for overseas study, many initially believed it was an elaborate prank. The Samstags had once lived and worked in Adelaide, and old colleagues of Gordon’s were unconvinced, as philanthropy of this kind had not historically been common in Australian culture. In recent decades things have changed as giving is being strategically encouraged by organisations such as Creative Partnerships Australia.
Yet a few arts patrons have long been visible. John and Sunday Reed’s legendary support for artists and writers at Heidi on the outskirts of Melbourne is firmly embedded in our art mythology. Artist J.W. Power’s 1961 bequest created The Power Institute and in 1989 led to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art - an institution seen as a cornerstone of our cultural landscape. The Felton Bequest greatly elevated the National Gallery of Victoria; John Kaldor and Naomi Milgrom have brought extraordinary art into the public realm; while David Walsh's MONA has invigorated Tasmania’s tourist reputation and economy.
But a generous gift must often be managed and massaged through institutional doorways. Ross Wolfe, Director of the University of South Australia’s Samstag Program from its inception, supervised development of the Scholarships for two decades. In conversation, Wolfe reflects that the unusually-bespoke Program sought to achieve a high standard in administering and publicising the Scholarships. That the Samstag is now the most prestigious award of its kind in this country significantly enhances the cultural identity of the University of South Australia, as well as increasing the institution’s attractiveness to other potential donors. As Wolfe says, “the UniSA has a great advertisement in its Samstag Program, which demonstrates assiduous institutional attention to the Samstags’ distinguished place in posterity.”
After retiring, Wolfe (also a former director of the Australia Council’s Visual Arts Board) oversaw a publishing project – The Samstag Legacy: An Artist’s Bequest . This weighty, scholarly examination of the benefactors is grounded in fifteen years of research, with essays by Wolfe and US art historian Lea Rosson DeLong. I recommend it as a fascinating archaeological dig into the complexities of bequests and the moods and politics of art, both in Australia and the United States . What becomes clear is that, while a significant gift can establish a new initiative, it must be met with an equal institutional commitment for it to be nurtured and grown into something that prospers and endures.
Erica Green, inaugural Director of the University of South Australia’s Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, believes investment in arts is vital to the broad educational and community health of the academy. Citing a series of US based studies, she believes that financial support over time for University art museums, whether private or public, usefully demonstrates an institution’s commitment to culture and diversity, ultimately attracting more students and external funding. Stanford, Harvard, Columbia and Yale, for example, have in recent years all built new museums to increase their capacity for mounting exhibitions of challenging experimentality and “intellectual adventure” . Stanford even requires that each student take at least one course in creative expression to promote ‘nimble’ thinking” .
Unsurprisingly, and as we have recently seen with the Ramsay benefaction, and its challenged goal of “promoting studies and discussion of western civilisation” , philanthropy is not a magic pill or licence to realising an unencumbered vision. Gordon Samstag’s many controlling stipulations hampered his original vision for the establishment of a US component to his scheme, with the fortuitous result that the whole of his bequest effectively came to Australia. Nevertheless, the terms of his will are so particular in relation to awarding the Samstag Scholarships, that the Samstag Program’s administrative accountability is unusually strict.
Over time, Medicis of the past can also tumble, for want of advocates. In 2014, artists’ protests eventually forced Luca Belgiorno-Nettis to stand down from the Biennale of Sydney Board due to his minority interest in Transfield Services, an organisation contracted to run the refugee detention centre on Manus Island and supply the detention centre on Nauru. Luca’s father, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, was the Biennale’s Founding Governor, with Transfield Holdings the Biennale’s major sponsor since its 1973 inception. When patronage like Belgiorno-Nettis’s (who also led the charge to secure and fund the Australian Pavilion in Venice) is compromised, it does not necessarily change the nature of business, but it does tarnish the appeal of certain segments of the arts to philanthropists.
While the Australia Business Arts Foundation and its successor, Creative Partnerships Australia, aim to foster a culture of private sector support for the arts, giving often appears to be on a narrow bandwidth - lodged in the higher profile niches of the Performing Arts. Although federal funding via the Australia Council for the Arts is based on peer assessment, tertiary institutions are competing for a small pot with individual artists, galleries and arts organisations. There can be no financial stability or equity for smaller institutions or organisations in an environment where government policy development and funding advice is based on statistical predictions of success, or, on the other end of the spectrum, ministerial penchants for diverting significant funding towards their own favoured projects .
Attracting and maintaining benefactors and partners can mean walking a fine line. Green reflects that universities are often perceived to be wealthy and not in need of support, and this can impact counterproductively on an art museum hungry for funds to mount ambitious creative projects, beyond the capabilities of the base budget. And while it is perhaps increasing at a slow pace, giving in Australia still languishes at less than one quarter of the hallowed US model, notwithstanding private Australian wealth. All the same, visual arts patronage is no longer the preserve of a handful of older wealthy families and giant corporates: rather a newer generation of art appreciators are becoming collectors and, with their growing passion, are emerging as donors.
Undeniably, affiliation, connection and investment with a broad spectrum of communities is integral to our institutions’ viability, nevertheless I don’t believe we are best served by simply focusing on the donor dollar. All revenue, whether government sourced, generated income or private philanthropy, comes with a unique set of implications, concerns, stipulations and expectations. Cultural philanthropy in tertiary institutions is of huge importance, and it is in every institution’s best interests to recognise the asset value of their cultural infrastructures and strategically invest in them, with a long-term vision for the future.
In Wolfe’s experience, when institutions make a fulsome commitment and engage, philanthropy will follow.
* Thank you Erica Green and Ross Wolfe for your liberal and insightful contributions to this article.
 Ross Wolfe, Ed, The Samstag Legacy: An Artist’s Bequest, Samstag Museum, University of South Australia, 2016
 Melinda Rackham, ‘The Samstag Legacy: An Artist's Bequest’, Artlink, 23 January 2017, https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4562/the-samstag-legacy-an-artistE28099s-bequest/
 Holland Cotter, ‘Why University Museums Matter’ Art Review - NYTimes.com 19 February 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/arts/design/20yale.html
 Hilarie M. Sheets, ‘Why US universities are investing in their art museums’, The Art Newspaper 5 January 2017, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/why-us-universities-are-investing-in-their-art-museums
 The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, 2018, http://www.ramsaycentre.org
 Ben Eltham, ‘Stop stealing from us’: NSW's 'demoralising' raid on arts funding should concern the nation, The Guardian, 28 September 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/sep/28/stop-stealing-from-us-nsws-demoralising-raid-on-arts-funding-should-concern-the-nation
Adjunct Research Professor of Art, Architecture and Design at the University of South Australia, Melinda Rackham is an artist, author and curator. For 25 years she has generated networked and virtual reality art; instigated theoretical forums; developed exhibition programs; woven poetic interdisciplinary tales; and examined issues of environmental and social justice. Her recent publications include the monograph Catherine Truman - Touching Distance , and the anthology ADOPTED  - poetry and prose from adult adoptees on loss, trauma and reclaiming self.