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The power of philanthropy in the pandemic era

The power of philanthropy in the pandemic era

Words by Stephanie Eslake

When the pandemic began, the music stopped.

In the early months of 2020, musicians experienced mass cancellations of their events. Performers who were slated to play at the Melbourne Recital Centre had their concert dates scrapped: they couldn’t perform for an audience that couldn’t attend.

But these musicians were paid anyway.

That March, Melbourne Recital Centre made a commitment to its artistic community. It chose to offer every one of its self-presented artists whose concerts were cancelled with a payment in lieu of the fee they would have received for performing live. Initially named the Performer Support Fund, that commitment has been extended throughout COVID and is now known as the Local Artist Appeal. And it has been a lifeline.

Perhaps the most striking part of this initiative is that it’s funded entirely through philanthropy. Loyal donors and first-time givers alike have banded together to support an industry in crisis.

To Melbourne Recital Centre’s Head of Development Alistaire Bowler, the value of this support goes beyond the stage – it’s about the morale and livelihood of Australia’s independent artists, and supporting their ability to get back into the concert hall as soon the opportunity returns.” According to Alistaire, “keeping our artistic community going where we could throughout this period has been critical”.

“That really speaks to the ethos of what we’re about, and the role we play in the ecosystem,” he says.

After spending two years as the Centre’s Philanthropy Manager, Alistaire stepped into his current role just one fortnight before Melbourne entered its major wave of 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.

“The first thing that struck me at the time – when we thought we were going to have to close down for four weeks to flatten the curve – was how critically important it would be to keep our supporter community close,” he recalls.

This generous community of donors has grown alongside the 13-year-old performing arts venue and it’s little wonder that they were quick to answer the Centre’s call for help.

“Our team knows nearly everybody personally – it’s a very close relationship we have with our community,” Alistaire says.

“Over the last couple of years, our donors have really sharpened their understanding of the role they need to play – but also our artistic community has themselves become more directly aware of how critical philanthropic support is for our sector.

“It’s been truly heart-warming to have people’s encouragement and support through such uncertain times.”

Melbourne Recital Centre has three core pillars of philanthropy through which individuals direct their support.

The Local Artist Appeal is situated under its Music Circle, which underpins the Centre’s core musical program, creating opportunities for hundreds of local, independent artists to perform in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and Primrose Potter Salon at no cost to them.

Then there’s the Learning and Access pillar, which supports a diverse range of programs focussed on creating a more inclusive society where Victorians of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities have the opportunity to experience outstanding performances and have access to high-quality music and learning opportunities. In particular, the Centre has a strong focus on delivering a wide variety of music and learning programs for children with lived experience of disability.

“It’s all about making everyone feel, from the very earliest stages of their lives, that the Centre is a place for them. The kind of place where everyone in the community feels welcome.”

The Artist Development pillar supports masterclasses, commissions, competitions, workshops, debut performances, and recording opportunities for emerging and established artists from across Victoria, and is focussed on ensuring a bright artistic future.

“We’re committed to creating opportunities for artists to increase extra-musical their skills,” Alistaire says. “We have a responsibility invest in our artists and audiences wherever we can.”

In 2021, the donor-facilitated program Artist Assembly offered grants, workshops, newsletters, and professional development opportunities to the Centre’s cohort of local artists to “grow their knowledge and invest in the business side of their ensembles”.

“If you’re a small independent ensemble, a quartet or a trio for example, you likely don’t have that database, network or infrastructure – and that’s where the Centre comes in to provide opportunities and connections for independent artists.”

This program included a workshop on how musicians can seek their own opportunities for philanthropic support, such as finding and communicating with donors – evidence of the self-sustaining nature of the Centre’s learning programs.

“This investment in early career artists is about ensuring they’re part of our music-making community for years to come,” Alistaire says. 

While audience members may identify Melbourne Recital Centre as a local music venue, it’s the activity that takes place behind the scenes that elevates this cultural institution to one capable of generating industry-wide change.

As Alistaire observes, a long-held tradition for Australian artists used to be that “if you want to make it, you go overseas and probably never come back.”

“I think what Melbourne Recital Centre has achieved in its 13 years of operations is to help retain some of the really great talent here in Melbourne.

“It exists as a platform of the highest calibre, and adds a richness to a musician’s life. It makes Melbourne a very attractive place to live, come to, and stay as an artist.”

An underlying concern must nevertheless be addressed, and this is the need for continued investment in an unstable sector. This also comes at a time when donors are facing their own pandemic challenges.

For this reason, the Centre has expanded its fundraising strategy creating more opportunities for all music lovers to provide ongoing support through monthly pledges.

Monthly giving respects the diverse needs of those who wish to support the Centre, enabling them to better manage their cashflow through smaller but no-less-significant contributions to the Centre’s philanthropic programs.

“It’s about community building and it’s about trust building. Whether yours is a large donation or small gift, every contribution makes an impact and we are delighted to welcome everyone amongst our community supporters,” Alistaire says of the monthly giving program. He is quick to note the benefit to the Centre as well: regular giving helps us to plan more effectively and affords an extra layer of security to our philanthropic programs, and consequently to the musicians of Victoria.

“Regardless of which element of our program you support, the year ahead is very much about getting the ecosystem back up and running.” Alistaire notes.

“We are enormously appreciative of the way our community has rallied behind us through this time, and we miss them all and can’t wait to join them back in our foyers and back in our halls again soon.”

Support the 2021 Local Artist Appeal with a donation today. 

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