In the heyday of its relationships with Australia’s arts community, Fairfax was proud to present itself as a cultural leader.

The naming rights sponsorship of the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Melbourne Fringe Festival in the mid-2000s, alongside similar sponsorships across the country, gave The Age a strong alignment with our boldest thinkers, our best writers, and our most adventurous artists. Such sponsorships aimed to lure these festivals’ substantial and loyal audiences – people who are happy to spend money on sophisticated and timely cultural experiences that offer a new perspective on the now.

Today’s festivals skilfully build community. They create public spaces where new thinking can emerge, and they offer enticing ways for people to engage with that new thinking, both offline and on. Strategically, in pursuing those sponsorships, Fairfax made a clear grab for audiences it knew to be passionately committed not only to the work of those artists, but also, to one another. Today’s festivals foster the curious, critical audiences that used to be lifeblood of the newspaper industry.

After the huge successes of these sponsorships, The Age tried to go out on its own in this space – and it failed. It held a festival-style conference of talks in the late 2000s, involving none of the festivals with whom it had been at pains to build valuable relationships, and scheduling itself against one of them. Infamously, nobody came, and despite the humiliating circulation of images depicting row after row of empty seats during the event, today all online trace of it has vanished.

Fairfax’s strength in the cultural space had been to lead through community engagement. Its festival sponsorships invested funds into the arts, but they also invested expertise, collaborating on audience development in innovative ways. The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald became synonymous with state art galleries, with copies regularly offered for free to visitors. And for well over a decade, The Age Critics’ Award recognised excellent work in the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Melbourne Festival and others.

Arts journalists are worth far more to a masthead than entertainment news and reviews might suggest. A newspaper who sees itself as both an authoritative account and a historical record must engage with contemporary culture. News cycle sensationalism of politics and crime are, at best, inert slices of daily living without a commitment to the investigative work that characterises them within a cultural context. A newspaper will fail if it cannot present itself as an active cultural citizen.

Right now, the most successful mastheads in the world are expanding into Australia because they see what we’re doing. They see us clicking on their work, and they know there’s a market in Australia for quality journalism. Both The Guardian and the New York Times have invested significantly in arts and cultural journalism as they settle here, because they recognise its value – not only in audience development but in establishing the authoritative presence that will lend weight to their news coverage. A newspaper that does not engage with contemporary culture cannot convincingly sell news.

A nation’s culture is not only its greatest asset, but, ultimately, its only asset.

The way our artists express themselves, the work they make, and the questions they pose, is what powers our lives.

Our private response to art is intellectual and emotional, sensitive and visceral. It animates our minds, and makes new and unexpected sensations possible. Our private response to art is what makes us human.

Our public response to art is a critical recognition, a set of connections to other artists and other works, a location of the work within the artform and its trajectory. It’s an articulation of what’s timely about the work – and what’s timeless. Our public response to art is what makes the Australian culture.

This week, Fairfax’s arts writers have drawn on their passionate community, and we have responded. They have written:

The Age and the [Sydney Morning] Herald have a proud history of discovering artists and documenting their rise and careers. Many of those who are now recognised internationally received their first mainstream media coverage thanks to our reporters, through their knowledge of their rounds and their long-held contacts.”

Arts journalism and arts criticism is vital not only to the Australian culture, but to the business model of any newspaper wishing to establish itself as an authoritative innovator.

Fair go, Fairfax.

A fair go – not only for your expert journalists without whom no newspaper can exist.

A fair go – not only for your arts coverage which has long been a leader and a forecaster.

A fair go for your business model – for the business of being a leading voice in the Australian public space – a business model which remains heavily steered on a downward spiral unless you begin to think creatively about how to undertake the business of cultural leadership.

And the only way to think creatively is to engage with creative thinkers.


IMAGE: The Age Melbourne Fringe Festival 2008 identity by Studio Pip & Co. Esther Anatolitis is a former CEO of Melbourne Fringe, a member of the Melbourne Writers Festival programming committee, and has written for The Age on a freelance basis across the past decade.