Published in Art Collector, Issue 68, Apr-Jun 2014
Corporate and private philanthropy has been playing an ever growing role in the local art world but the terms of its involvement may be changing. Jane O’Sullivan reports on the artist boycott of the Biennale of Sydney.
It all started with a question: should artists boycott the Biennale of Sydney over its links with Transfield, a company involved in operating detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island? The debate that followed lit up the art world over February and March. As Art Collector goes to print, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, the director of Transfield Holdings, has resigned from his role as chair of the biennale, a role he has held for 14 years, and the biennale board has subsequently cut ties with Transfield completely.
For artists opposed to the Federal Government’s mandatory detention policies, Transfield’s involvement as a major sponsor and founding partner of the biennale was a thorny issue. The questions it raised, and continues to raise, go to the heart of the role corporate and private philanthropy plays in the art world.
Matthew Kiem, a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and a campaigner for the rights of asylum seekers, brought the issue to wider attention with a piece in The Conversation, an online academic news site. In it, he described how he had received marketing inviting him to take his students to a biennale event. “Could I support an event funded by profits of mandatory detention, a policy slammed by the UNHCR as inhumane and non-compliant with international law? My answer: emphatically, no,” he wrote.
He pointed out that the extent of Transfield’s operations, which include public transport, waste management and superannuation among other things, complicated the idea of a boycott but suggested that “our being implicated is also a source of resistance – provided we choose to rethink our responsibilities and ability to act … In this sense, while I may not be able to give up using public transport, I can resist Transfield through my work in the arts industry.”
Encouraged by this, and an open letter Kiem had written to the arts industry, four artists invited to show at the biennale took up the baton and formed a collective called Working Group. They were Charlie Sofo, Bianca Hester, Nathan Gray and Gabrielle de Vietri. Joining them over coming days were artists including Benjamin Armstrong, Angelica Mesiti, Callum Morton and Ross Manning.
The Working Group issued an open letter to the Biennale of Sydney, stating that while they had “utmost respect” for the artistic director Juliana Engberg and her team, “we do not want to be associated with these practices [of mandatory detention]”.
Over the ensuing days 10 Australian and international artists withdrew from the biennale, relinquishing any fees as well as the huge boost to their careers that comes with exhibition in such a major event. They included Gray, Sofo and de Vietri from the original Working Group organising committee, and Agnieszka Polska, Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson and Ahmet Öğüt. Other artists not involved in the biennale also showed their support, including Diego Bonetto who walked off the job at the Museum of Contemporary Arts where he was installing a Biennale of Sydney exhibition.
The biennale was sympathetic. “With passions running high about the government’s policy on asylum seekers, I imagine there will be a desire for debate, discussion and dissent,” said Engberg in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. But the relationship with Transfield held firm, that is, until Belgiorno-Nettis announced his resignation as chairperson of the Biennale of Sydney board on 7 March 2014. “The core spirit of the festival is under a dark cloud,” he said in a letter explaining the decision. “A week away from opening, I am mindful of what the biennale experience should mean to our many thousands of participants: artists, venue partners, audience, benefactors, sponsors and government agencies.” He also thanked Engberg for her “unequivocal allegiance” to him and the event. A press release from the Biennale of Sydney followed announcing the termination of the partnership with Transfield.
There are of course questions about what this has all achieved. The biennale loses funding, and asylum seekers are still detained offshore. Commentator Helen Razer described the protest as a short-term feel good tactic. “It will allow artists to feel as though they have done something by doing nothing,” she wrote in the Daily Review.
She is rightfully distrustful of the bark-but-no-bite of social media activism – but there is a wider discourse at play here over the effectiveness of boycotts as a protest strategy: can you effect change from outside the system, or must you take part in the long march through the halls of power, as it was coined by activist Rudi Dutschke during the 1960s student movement in Germany. Is it more effective for artists to make political art (and have it shown by potentially compromised institutions) or to take the usual forms of action? Certainly not all the artists in the Working Group would have felt comfortable making political art, or being described as activists. As the original Working Group open letter pointed out, they saw themselves simply as members of a society facing a moral issue: “This issue has presented us with an opportunity to become aware of, and to acknowledge, responsibility for our own participation in a chain of connections that links to human suffering.” A boycott of the biennale happened to be one tool available to them to take action on the issue.
For his part Kiem takes the pragmatic view that any progress is better than none. “The ultimate goal is to end mandatory detention, and while there is great deal more work to do in that respect, this result is a small indication of what the boycott, disrupt and divest campaign can achieve,” he told Art Collector.
Others are more conscious of the bittersweet side of the result. Mike Seccombe, reporting in The Saturday Paper, noted: “It’s all very sad for the biennale organisers, and in particular for Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who even the activists agree is far from being your average corporate sponsor. He is chairman of the biennale board [and] he is emotionally invested in the event, through the 40-year family connection.”
Art critic John McDonald called it a “disaster for arts patronage” saying on Twitter he thought “the biennale loses more than it gains”. There are of course serious logistical and financial questions that must now be faced by the Biennale of Sydney and its remaining board members.
Artist and activist Zanny Begg, commenting on Seccombe’s piece in The Saturday Paper, had little sympathy for the biennale organisers: “While it is true that the Belgiono-Nettis family have been long term patrons of the arts, surely this should have only made them more attuned to this milieu and aware that the expansion of their brand Transfield into mandatory offshore detention would garner the reaction it has.”
There are no easy answers here. As the Working Group artists pointed out, public institutions are increasingly reliant on private finance and less on public funding. But if this trend is to continue, the experience of the Biennale of Sydney is a warning shot across the bow: not all money is welcome