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Sponsorship, ethics and the Biennale of Sydney

14 March 2014

This piece was to originally begin with a comment on the nature of the ‘two week news cycle’, how easily we forget outrage, and the fact that nothing today seems to change through protest. Then, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Executive Director of Transfield Holdings, offered his resignation as chairman of the Biennale of Sydney – after four decades of his family’s support of the event.

Transfield Holdings, parent company of the major infrastructure and maintenance corporation Transfield Services, rescinded their funding of the Biennale amidst public and media criticism of their subsidiary’s contract with the Australian Government. Transfield Services are contracted for AUD $1.2 billion to provide and administer the offshore detention facilities on Nauru, and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Before this development, commentary and op-eds had proliferated in the media. A boycott, precipitated by online commentary from Sydney-based academic Matthew Kiem, and implemented by participating artists including Bianca Hester, Charlie Sofo, Nathan Gray and Gabrielle de Vietri, gained some traction and media attention.

The boycotting artists acknowledged three key factors – the difficult moral ground of arts sponsorship, the fact that government funding is restricted towards the arts, and that in these trying times, commercial support is increasingly necessary. Energetic and impassioned debate ensued within the arts community. I felt conflicted, and ultimately pessimistic – what could actually be achieved by a boycott? Initially, I remained silent. The artists who did stand up were denounced publicly by Australia’s federal Communications Minister for their ‘vicious ingratitude’.

This is such an intricate issue – at stake are the livelihoods of a considerable number of Australian and international artists. Each will benefit significantly from their involvement in the Biennale of Sydney. Monetary backing from Transfield will probably already have been spent on commissioned projects. Presumably, Transfield have historically benefitted too from initially positive PR. At the least, there will have been tax breaks for their philanthropy.

What is abundantly clear, however, is the refugees incarcerated somewhere in the Pacific will not benefit from the artworks that will fill the Museum of Contemporary Art, Artspace and other venues. As Helen Hughes has noted elsewhere, privatisation allows governments to avoid culpability – their problems become Transfield’s problems instead, while off our country’s coast, people fleeing horrific conditions have been injured and even killed on the doorstep of one of the world’s strongest economies.

After the news broke of Belgiorno-Nettis’s resignation, thoughts turned to the immediate practicalities: rumours abounded that Transfield paid for (or operated) the ferries that shipped people over to Cockatoo Island, an old penal colony that is a key venue for the Biennale – a bleak sort of irony really, they certainly were the right company for the task.

The true ramifications of the Biennale’s decision to sever ties with Transfield are yet to be seen. The federal Arts Minister (and Attorney General) George Brandis has already threatened the Biennale with pulling the Government’s funding. Brandis went as far to ask the Australia Council to look into the viability of an alarming clause that states artists who refuse private sector funding would be unable to seek public funding from the government.

The Biennale’s rejection of Transfield’s sponsorship has been a symbolic victory for the petitioners, and encouraging for those engaged in similar debates elsewhere. But beyond that, things quickly become ambiguous. The very artists who made this public stand have no doubt, at some point, applied for (and accepted) grant money from the Australia Council for the Arts – the arts funding body of the Australian Government. Their logo sits pride of place next to that of Transfield on the Biennale’s website. It is not my intention to question the work of the Australia Council and its staff, but it must be remembered that Transfield is on the government’s payroll, as this highlights the double standards at play.

Behind this furore lies a sadder reality – one that international audiences rarely hear. Australians are willing to reprimand those who oppress elsewhere (in this case, those who stand between asylum seekers and Australian shores), but remain blind to the ongoing troubles faced by Australia’s Indigenous people. Out of more than 90 Biennale artists from 31 countries, hardly any are Indigenous Australians. This is the headline that the ‘two week news cycle’ can no longer bring itself to repeat. There is no stronger indictment than the fact that this truth functions today as little more than a cliché.

Related Articles:

Sydney Biennale severs ties with Transfield after artists’ boycotts (Maggie Gray)

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY 2.0)