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Sydney Biennale severs ties with Transfield after artists’ boycotts

8 March 2014

The chairman of the Sydney Biennale has resigned following the controversy surrounding the event’s main corporate sponsor, Transfield, where he is also the CEO. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis has been the chair for 14 years and his father helped found the Biennale – but following his departure the organisers will sever ties with the company.

Transfield Holdings is a contractor for Australia’s immigration detention facilities. In recent weeks several artists have voiced their concern over the Biennale’s association with the company and, by extension, with the government’s policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers, which they consider to be a breach of human rights. Last month, a group of artists wrote an open letter to the Board of Directors about the issue, and later several of the signatories decided to boycott.

The recent announcement is something of a surprise, and has implications beyond Australia, as the art world negotiates the ethics of international networks and sponsorship. Last year, for example, debate erupted over whether artists should boycott the Moscow Biennale to protest against Russia’s homosexuality laws, or participate and use the platform to champion diversity.

Sydney Biennale’s organisers inserted a panel discussion about the ethics of sponsorship into its programme even as they were arguing for Transfield’s ongoing involvement. It’s certainly a debate worth having. Like it or not, sponsorship is a necessary part of the art world today, but where and how do you draw the line when corporate sponsorship is so widespread and some corporate ethics so murky?

Even if it were possible for the art world to wash its hands of the bad sort of sponsorship, what then? Cutting links with Transfield saves some handwringing, but it doesn’t do much to change the social problems at the root of the saga, except by giving them visibility. Here’s hoping the recent debates can be sustained, and new conversations started, as part of the Biennale itself, while it has the art world’s attention.

Related Articles:

Sponsorship, ethics and the Biennale of Sydney (Tim Walsh)

Art Outlook: 27 February

Protest at the Guggenheim over Saadiyat Island labour conditions (Imelda Barnard)

Manifesta 10 will go ahead in Russia despite calls for a boycott (Maggie Gray)

Elsewhere on the web:

On the Boycott of the 2014 Biennale of Sydney (Helen Hughes, Frieze blog)

The ethical minefield of arts sponsorship (Fiona Gruber, The Sydney Morning Herald)