Betty Amsden OAM is fondly known as the ‘Arts Angel’ in Melbourne art circles for her passionate commitment to making the arts accessible for young people today, tomorrow and always. Nicole Richards talks to her about leadership and the joy of giving.

Miss Betty Amsden OAM is 86 years young. Brimming with vitality, her energetic commitment to ensuring long-term accessibility and leadership in the arts, has earned her many accolades – including a place on Forbes Magazine’s 2013 list of 48 Heroes of Philanthropy – but none give her the same kick as seeing the future of the arts in front of her own eyes.

“The youth of today are our future – I’m not the future,” she chuckles. “But I can help these young people experience the arts and help them realise the beauty in it. The most inspiring thing for me is to see young kids who dream of becoming a dancer having the opportunity to realise their dreams at the ballet school – it really feels like I’m watching the future.”

A self-made woman who started working at the age of 15, Amsden worked “damn hard” to build her financial success by developing aged care homes and various commercial property investments. “My parents always instilled in me the idea that ‘the harder you work, the luckier you are’ and I think that’s very true.”

Her generous spirit is also something she credits to her parents who stressed the importance of helping those less fortunate. “They always told me ‘if you have two pennies, give one away,’ and the first time I gave one away, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” she says with characteristic candour. “I gave it to a young girl at my school whose family had very little money. She ended up becoming my very best friend so the repayment was more than tenfold!

“Since then I’ve carried it on,” she adds. “I get a lot of pleasure from it. People don’t realise there is such a joy in giving. You can start as a small donor and then away you go – you get hooked. The more you give, the more you get back – it’s like an addiction!”

Seeing motivates giving

The extent of Amsden’s largesse has set new records for individual giving in her home state of Victoria, where she is believed to be the biggest individual donor to the performing arts. Her donations to Arts Centre Melbourne alone over the last four years total $6.6 million to fund scholarships, access programs for regional youth, leadership training and the recently launched ‘Melbourne Arts Walk,’ a series of plaques designed to celebrate talent and creativity in the arts.

“I’m very excited by what we’re doing at the Arts Centre,” Amsden says. “I strongly believe in community involvement and the Arts Walk brings art to the people. I hope it gives people a little bit of ownership of the arts and a sense of belonging which I think is very, very important.”

An active supporter of the Australian Ballet School, Polyglot Theatre, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Victorian Opera, the RSPCA and Guide Dogs Victoria, Amsden’s support goes far beyond a monetary donation. A hands-on participant, she is actively involved in the causes she supports.

“I don’t just write a cheque and hand it over. I want to know what that cheque will do, I want to see what will happen with it,” she explains. “I’ve been to all the classes at the Arts Centre Melbourne’s children’s program and I’ve been out to disadvantaged schools with Polyglot Theatre and it’s such a joy and a privilege to be able to see the results.”

Raising a nation of givers

When pondering the state of philanthropy in Australia, Amsden pulls no punches. “I believe Australia as a whole – rich and poor – is not a giving nation in the way that America or England is, where they’re brought up where philanthropy is very important in daily life – they look at it so differently,” explains Amsden. “We’ve not been brought up to give. We give occasionally but not continuously.

“Here we’re great when there are floods or when there’s an appeal for the children’s hospital but we don’t continue to give or think about giving,” she adds. “I just wish I had 20 times the money I have so that I could do 20 times more good.”

Amsden admits that winning her support is no small feat. She recalls it took five years of regular contact by Arts Centre Melbourne before she made her first donation.

“I think fundraising is hard yakka – it’s a hell of a hard job,” she says. “I have to trust the person I’m giving to and a good fundraiser will more or less nurture you. I want them to show me what they’re doing, not give it to me on a piece of paper.

“I think the best thing is to bring the donor into the organisation and let them participate for a year or two so they can see firsthand what’s being done,” she adds.

Creating a legacy of leadership

Watching her support help establish projects that go on to take flight in a broader community setting brings Amsden immense joy. “Seeing young people who’ve used a scholarship to go overseas and learn about leadership in the arts come back with new ideas to expand programs so that even more people can enjoy the arts is so rewarding,” explains Amsden. “It means my investment ends up being spread right across the community.

“Being a leader is not just about having the title, it’s about helping others and improving your team and encouraging them to go further,” she adds. “That’s what I hope my legacy is all about.”

With a rich sense of compassion and youthful spirit, Amsden’s exceptional generosity has already guaranteed her position as one of Australia’s most inspiring leaders in the field of philanthropy.

Nicole Richards
Nicole Richards is a freelance writer who specialises in NGO communications.

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