Courting arts donors

With corporate sponsorships expected to dip post-SG50, arts groups are targeting individuals by offering discounts, priority booking and insider perks

Financially, the past two years have been kind to the arts fraternity here, with donors dipping generously into their coffers, buoyed by Golden Jubilee cheer.

However, arts groups are bracing themselves for a dip in major contributions in the years to come, as the economy continues its sluggish crawl and companies tighten their belts.

The SG50 celebrations, with its slew of big-bang arts and cultural activities and the long-awaited opening of National Gallery Singapore, contributed to the recent buoyant sponsorship climate, says Ms Yeoh Phee Suan, director of corporate communications and marketing services at the National Arts Council.

As a result, total contributions from corporations and individuals last year – including artefacts and cash – stood at $72.9 million, up from $46.3 million in 2013.

It’s a good ecosystem to keep people coming back.We want to cultivate relationships with our supporters because the arts is also about bringing different people together.

’MR TERENCE HO, executive director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, on arts membership programmes

This year’s Patron of the Arts Awards in September honoured 226 individuals and companies who gave $53.8 million to the arts last year – a record high since the awards were started in 1983.

And for this year alone, donations to institutions of public character – among them arts groups – netted tax rebates of 300 per cent, up from the usual 250 per cent.

Going forward, while corporate sponsors The Straits Times spoke to declined to say if they would be cutting back after forking out hefty amounts during or in the lead-up to SG50, arts groups are cautious in their expectations.

Theatre company Wild Rice’s artistic director Ivan Heng says: “Corporate cash sponsorship is always dependent on the economy. As a consequence, it’s rather scarce in the current climate.”

Even national performing arts centre the Esplanade is bracing itself for a fall in donations. This is despite having received more than $5.5 million in donations and sponsorship in the financial year ending March 2015 and with the number of donors and sponsors expected to increase for thisSG50 year.

The Esplanade’s head of relationship management Lim Ewe Leong says: “As there are too many fund-raising activities this year, we will probably experience fundraising fatigue by early next year and there may be a drop in people donating thereafter.

“Hopefully, however, as more people come to embrace the arts, we will see less drastic peaks and dips in arts giving year-on-year.”

CONNECTING WITH THE ARTS CAUSE

The hard-nosed business world and the arts have been close bedfellows in Singapore, though the Government remains the art scene’s biggest patron – state funding for the arts and heritage last year was a whopping$489.3million.

Gilded words spell out the role corporate giants have played: the new National Gallery Singapore houses permanent galleries named after banks United Overseas Bank (UOB) and DBS, while dance and theatre festivals here carry the name of telco M1.

The gallery has drawn the lion’s share of high-profile contributions in the run-up to its opening last month, including $25 million from DBS last year, $20million from Singtel this year and an undisclosed amount from UOB, which also gave the gallery access to its collection of more than 1,500 works of art.

National Gallery’s chief executive officer, Ms Chong Siak Ching, says understanding what motivates donors to give – big or small – is key.

“What resonates with donors include their desire for brand awareness, client engagement opportunities, fulfilling their corporate social responsibility mandate and leaving a legacy,” she says. “Ultimately, the mission of the institution seeking support must be consistent with that of the donors. And the donor must feel proud to be associated with the institution that they are supporting.”

Singtel, for instance, hopes to bring about better understanding of South-east Asian art, says the telco’s group chief corporate officer Jeann Low.

With the Singtel Special Exhibitions Gallery in the National Gallery, the telco wants to make modern artworks from around the world available to the Singapore community.

The gallery will use the space to co-curate with museums two art exhibitions a year to help fuel interest in South-east Asian art.

Ms Chong says: “Individuals give when they connect with the cause at a personal level. We have to appeal to donors that art can help society understand its own culture and history, and cultivate creative and critical thinking, especially among the young.”

Large corporate donations being few and far between, arts institutions and groups say it is crucial to build a broad base of individual supporters,wooing them with membership and donor programmes that reward annual contributions with perks, discounts and a sense of community.

Arts organisations also hope to expand the idea of giving to the arts – every cent counts and time is as valuable a resource as cash – so the layman can have a better sense of his stake in the arts.

This has given rise to more creative and personal efforts to connect with the public.

MEMBERSHIP PRIVILEGES

For example, Dream Academy – a private limited arts entertainment company best known for producing the Dim Sum Dollies comedy act – has a tiered membership programme which offers exclusive privileges to supporters who give at least $10,000 a year.

These include 30 Category 1 tickets to its shows, invites to a brainstorming session with Dream Academy founder and actress Selena Tan and a private dinner with one of the company’s artists.

The Dream Champions scheme is a vital strategy in keeping the company afloat. Dream Academy, which turns 15 this year, is unusual in that it is not an institution of public character – unlike many other arts groups – a status which allows donors to enjoy tax benefits when they give.

Its general manager,Mr John Pok, says: “Unlike in other developed theatre markets such as West End or Broadway, there is a negligible ‘arts investment’ community here – individuals and institutions who look into privately funded arts and entertainment productions and invest in them with the aim of a profit.”

This means the Dream Champions scheme will become increasingly important to the company in the long term, he adds, though he declines to say how many have signed up for it.

In July, the Esplanade launched its Esplanade&Me programme, a membership scheme which doles out rewards and discounts – including meet-and-greet sessions with artists and priority booking for shows.

Since then, 2,500 have signed up for the basic White Card – for an annual fee of $50 – and 50 have signed up for the $500 Black Card, which throws in more perks, including post-show parties.

Such programmes are an important cornerstone of the relationship between the arts group and its supporters, offering engagement and acknowledgement, and connecting like-minded fans.

Mr Terence Ho, executive director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, which has its own membership programme, says: “It’s a good ecosystem to keep people coming back. We want to cultivate relationships with our supporters because the arts is also about bringing different people together.”

Tiered membership programmes, which pile on the perks depending on the amount of money committed, are a good way to draw the uninitiated, arts insiders say.

Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) chief executive officer Chng Hak-Peng says: “It’s a way to start them out – these people who have never given to the arts before, but who want to see what it’s about. If they like the experience, they can renew for another year or upgrade.”

The Friends of the SSO programme, which starts with a minimum donation of $75 and goes up to the top tier of $1,000 or more a year, has 780 members. About 10 per cent of them upgrade to a higher tier each year.

Teacher Aileen Tang, a regular concertgoer, signed on at the lowest tier 11/2 years ago and says the priority booking and discounted tickets are the main attractions for her.

The SSO organises exclusive meet-the-artist sessions for its members too, allowing them to mingle with musicians and fans.

Ms Tang, who is in her 30s, adds: “The sense of community is also appealing as one has the opportunity to meet people who are avid classical-music lovers too.”

OTHER WAYS TO HELP

When it comes to spurring cash donations, arts groups also hope the Cultural Matching Fund, in which the Government matches private cash donations dollar for dollar, will be here to stay.

Tax-deductible donations to the arts and heritage sector last year nearly doubled the amount in the previous year – reaching $55.2 million, following the launch of the $200-million fund in late 2013.

Since the first application window opened in May last year, there have been four application cycles with almost half of the $200 million used up. The number of applicants has been increasing and the fund also motivates groups here to professionalise their fundraising efforts, says the arts council’s Ms Yeoh.

On the fund, SSO’s Mr Chng says: “It lessens the burden of gifting and it inspires donors because it makes them feel that their contribution, no matter how small, has weight. The Government matching their contribution to the arts, dollar for dollar, sends the right signal – that the arts is important.”

But some hope to see tweaks. Dream Academy, Mr Pok points out, is not eligible for the fund, which is open only to charities and institutions of public character in the arts and heritage sector.

Meanwhile, Mr Alan Oei, artistic director of independent arts centre The Substation, believes that allowing “flagship state-run institutions”, such as the National Gallery and the National Museum of Singapore, to tap the fund will not give smaller groups a level playing field.

He feels the fund then “perpetuates and deepens a condition where a few big organisations will suck up the majority of the funds available”.

While institutions such as the National Museum can tap the fund, a $10-million lifetime cap for each organisation was implemented at the start to ensure all arts groups get a fair stab at the pie. This year, the cap was raised to $15 million.

Corporations say the fund can help them stretch their dollar and maintain sustainability in giving.

Mr Ivan Lim, director of corporate communications for M1, says sustainable giving means arts groups will not have to suffer the crests and troughs of sponsorship – expanding one year when sizeable donations come in and then having to reduce headcount when sponsors hold back.

M1 has been supporting the arts since 1997 and is the title sponsor for a number of major arts programmes, including the upcoming M1Singapore Fringe Festival organised by The Necessary Stage.

The telco usually offers its support on a multi-year renewal basis so arts groups have the certainty and time to grow.

A sustainable climate of arts philanthropy is something the arts council hopes to see, even though cultivating it will remain a challenge, says Ms Yeoh. “Given that the best artists create regular work and treat their practice as a lifelong vocation, it is important that funding can be more than a one-off exercise,” she adds.

And in addition to cash, donors should also be open to giving in other ways, including volunteering and donating art-making or rehearsal space, she adds.

Marketing consultant Lianne Tan is one of a growing number of people chipping in with their time and know-how. She has always been interested in learning more about the history and development of Singapore, its buildings and its art scene.

After 91 hours of training over eight months, Ms Tan, 42, is a new volunteer docent at the National Gallery.

Getting people to step forward to give either time or cash to the arts might, first of all, requires some demystifying, she says.

Arts groups, for instance, can hold open houses to show people what goes on behind the scenes and the different skills needed. “

Once people understand the type of work, effort and time that goes into putting an arts project together, then, perhaps, they may feel that they, too, can contribute,” she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Courting arts donors'. Print Edition | Subscribe