The art of philanthropy

The traditional English sense of ‘charity’ is made clear in that great definer of the language, the Authorised Version. ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ ‘And now abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ (1 Cor 13:1)

Charity thus is the love of one’s fellow person(s). More recently, Roget makes it synonymous with philanthropy.

Yet common parlance, and the Oxford English Dictionary, make a useful distinction. Charity is gifts or benevolence, often unstructured, to the poor and unfortunate. Philanthropy suggests additional, wider, and more composite delineated purposes: the advance of arts, sciences or education, and missions on behalf of civilisation or culture. Of course the categories overlap. Curing the diseases of the unfortunate may advance science; education may benefit the poor and civilisation is supposedly a universal blessing. Motives and methods are equally complex; witness Alfred Felton and Sidney Myer, and the trusts they established.

The traditional critique of charity is that there is too little of it to meet needs, and that often it is inefficiently distributed. The more subtle critique, that it may perpetuate the evils it seeks to alleviate, is also not new. The 19th century spoke of ‘pauperisation’, the late 20th of ‘welfare dependency’.

Philanthropy attracts additional criticism. In moving beyond ‘mere’ charity it seeks to influence and alter societies, their beliefs, and their policies, as well as individual circumstances. Theorists of economics, class and culture speak of hegemony. More instinctive democrats simply resent the distinctions of wealth, and the power to make decisions that influence others.

The locus classicus of the critique of philanthropy is the great American foundations. The immense, untaxed fortunes of Gilded Age America were often dissipated in every sense of that word, but some became trusts in perpetuity, intended for the world’s betterment.

Understandably, many doubted both the motives and capacity of ‘robber barons’ and their lieutenants, who claimed to know what was better and could pay for it. And pay on a scale that could significantly alter society.

In the early decades of modern foundations, and of the 20th century, the successful Rockefeller campaign against parasitic disease was largely uncontroversial. No one, after all, was in favour of hookworms. But the radical reform of medical education, accomplished through financial inducements arguably defined modern ‘scientific’ medicine as it is still practiced. This was after the devastating Rockefeller-commissioned Flexner Report (Abraham Flexner, Medical Education in the United States and Canada, 1910) closed many medical schools and made many enemies.

Such campaigns foreshadowed the modern, much criticised practice of foundations: scientific and social scientific inquiry followed by social programs. To the left, this looks like social control by the wealthy and conservative; the right sees liberal interference with eternal values and verities, including the free market. And foundation support of ‘high’ culture or ‘elite’ education can unite the philistines and some friends of the poor in condemnation.
The awareness and the critique of philanthropy have been muted in Australia, mainly because there hasn’t been much of it. Unlike Britain and America, our great libraries, museums and universities are overwhelmingly public foundations. And the public fisc has been both first and last resort of Australians seeking social amelioration (or research funds) to an extent that surprises other Anglo-Saxon nations. In Australia a prescriptive and paternal state has existed since the foundation of the Gulag at the Antipodes; and private fortunes were, until recently, tiny compared to those of Europe and North America. 

The Myer and Felton fortunes were founded in Victorian (both senses) and Edwardian Australia in retailing, manufacture and wholesaling; the eponymous Myer Emporium and Felton, Grimwade drugs. As in all eras, the hardy perennials of charity and philanthropy needed support. Universities were underfunded, high culture in a parlous state, the poor as always with us.

Felton and Myer weren’t Carnegie and Rockefeller. They were far, far less wealthy. Their sins needing expiation were also venial by comparison; they had not shot down their workers (Carnegie at Homestead) or tried to monopolise a vital commodity (Rockefeller and Standard Oil). Indeed their primary motivation appears to have been benevolence. In their lifetimes both were largely charitable, only occasionally philanthropic. Myer famously combated the depression with a mass Christmas dinner in the Exhibition Building and also renovated premises to provide employment, and urged other businessmen to do likewise.

Myer’s last thoughts and those of his heirs and first trustees were still largely charitable, as here defined. The Sidney Myer Trust (established 1935) supported the usual causes and institutions. It also, however, continued Myer’s linked interests in music, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and The University of Melbourne, culminating in the building of the Myer Music Bowl in the 1960s—‘high’ culture in the service of the populace.

Younger Myers’ became generous and thoughtful philanthropists. Sidney’s sons were particularly active, and by the late 1950s their interest in the Howard Florey Institute (medical research), in Asian Studies, as it became known, and in other philanthropic causes took them and their shares of the family fortune beyond the scope of the Trust. Their new Myer Foundation may be said to have introduced Australia to modern philanthropy as practiced elsewhere. Proactive where others had largely been reactive, and tightly focused programs addressing a wide variety of issues beyond traditional charitable causes, all distinguished the new organisation and increasing numbers of others like it.

The Foundation has continued to be a leader in thinking and doing in Australian philanthropy. In line with international trends, it has moved from the academic investigation of, and prescription for, social ills to the empowerment of the beneficiaries of charity and philanthropy. It has been firmly committed to strategic philanthropy, meeting the self-perceived and articulated needs of the disadvantaged with seed money for their choice of programs. In defining and furthering its aims it also led the way administratively, employing some of Australia’s first philanthropy professionals (including Michael Liffman).

At his death in 1904, Alfred Felton’s Will divided the bulk of his fortune between two bequests. ‘Nearly half a million for Charity and Art’, declared the Argus newspaper. The Felton Bequests Committee has allocated the ‘Charity’ income in accord with the changing times, taking similar directions to Myer, though seldom leading the way: widely benevolent, seldom very influential.
The ‘Art’ income was directed toward ‘the purchase of works of art, ancient or modern, or antiquities ... [judged] ... to have an educational value and to be calculated to raise and improve public taste’. The Committee was to acquire these on the recommendation or with the approval of the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), where they would be displayed. Disputes and agreements, revolutions and reactions, chronicled by Poynter over 400 pages, have continued for a century thus far.

Should artists be Australian and if so living or dead or at least suitably aged and established? Are artists the best judges of art? How much authority should be in the hands of an overseas expert? Might the expert be based elsewhere than London (no), a colonial (sometimes), a woman? (Surprisingly yes, and more than once.) What influence should the director of the NGV wield? If Old Master paintings were prohibitively expensive, what to do? (Buy prints and drawings, now amounting to a world-class collection.) As history of Australian taste, in social and political contexts, Poynter’s work can bear comparison with Patrick McCaughey or Robert Hughes, or even Bernard Smith.

Certainly, the Felton history provides material for the critique of philanthropy. The interlocking directorates of the Bequest, the National Gallery itself, the Walter and Eliza Hall and Howard Florey Institutes, suggest a concentration, though not hegemony, of cultural and intellectual power, wielded for decades through meetings at the Melbourne Club. It also suggests philanthropy’s peculiar benefits. McCaughey convincingly asserts that without the Bequest, Australia would have no ‘encyclopedic’ collection of Western Art. Like the great Mitchell and Dixson gifts to the State Library of New South Wales, Felton gave Australia cultural resources inaccessible today, and beyond the range of government thought and grasp in all but the best of eras. And galleries like libraries have been (at least until the recent trend to fees) the most democratic kind of high culture.

These are informative and interesting books. Mr Felton’s Bequests is massive and subtle as well. The reader will be encouraged and equipped to make her own judgments of Australian charity and philanthropy.

David R. Jones was trained as an historian of universities, and is presently an apprentice second-hand bookseller in Daylesford, Victoria.



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