Nor is it possible to devote oneself to culture and declare that one is ‘not interested’ in politics.
The divestment campaign against the Biennale of Sydney’s partnership with Transfield Holdings has ended in a win for the artists, workers & refugee advocates who withdrew their work, resigned and called for a boycott of the festival because its major sponsor is a shareholder in the publicly-listed Transfield Services. Transfield Services runs Australia’s offshore immigration detention centre in Nauru and last week won the contract to manage the Manus Island centre.
The campaign claimed another scalp. Chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, whose father Franco founded the festival in 1973, has resigned, ending his family’s 41 year association with the Biennale.
A school trip to the 1988 Biennale provided my first experience of contemporary art. I remember walking through Walsh Bay’s Pier 2/3 & discovering Hermann Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer & the staggering, seminal installation from the Ramingining Artist Community, The Aboriginal Memorial (200 Hollow Log Bone Coffins), now permanently housed at the National Gallery of Australia. I’m grateful to everyone associated with the Festival for opening my mind to great work.
The relationship between artist and patron has always been fraught, regardless of the source – papal favour, royal academy, oligarch or government. Decisions to commission work, invitations to exhibit and grant funding… none are made without some return for the patron, whether it’s an overly-flattering portrait, religious or political propaganda. Artists who refuse to yield have found themselves ostracised, persecuted and impoverished.
None of this is to say that creatives should compromise their vision or work; but as a writer who is sometimes asked to write for payment, I do so knowing that my work may be edited in a way that I don’t like. It’s the price you pay for doing business. I have the freedom to self-publish rejected work or pursue ideas that don’t appeal to others. No one is charged to read what I write here. Sometimes I accept commissions on subjects I have little passion for, and I reach for words that just will not come.
I believe BDS can be an effective strategy to weaken state and non-state actors whose principles, policies and activities you judge, individually or as a society, to be abhorrent. There are some companies, countries and individuals my conscience tells me I cannot support. I also have first-hand experience of the increasing squeeze on public ‘hands-off’ funding for creative workers and the experiences they can provide us. The #bos19 campaign took aim at one festival and one patron. If it’s good enough for people to question their involvement, attendance or support for the Biennale of Sydney, surely it is incumbent on them to apply their principles consistently?
I’m combing through a list of cultural institutions, companies and individuals who accepted government grant funding in the last year (disclosure: I was a staffer to a former NSW Minister for the Arts, however the grant information is publicly available). It’s difficult to trawl through all of their connections, but here is a sample:
- Accessible Arts – Sculpture Walk Podcast – Transfield Foundation (a joint initiative between Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services. (the project stems from a pilot programme with Sculpture by the Sea of tactile tours for the blind or vision impaired. The success of those tactile tours, which involve the opportunity to feel the sculptures accompanied by audio description, coupled with Accessible Arts’ desire to develop inclusive access in the Walsh Bay precinct lead to a conversation with Stephen Bradley and Transfield Foundation about improving access to the Walsh Bay Sculpture Walk and an audio description podcast, to complement a self-directed tactile tour. The audio description is a detailed description of the visual aspects of each sculpture, enhanced with background information about the artwork and the artist, and in most cases commentary from the sculptor. Visitors to Walsh Bay can learn more about the art in the precinct through an immersive experience, which both increases access for blind or vision-impaired people, and enhances engagement with the often abstract sculptures for tourists or visitors to our neighbourhood).
- Adelaide Symphony Orchestra – principal partner – Santos
- Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – principal partner – Macquarie Group
- Australian Chamber Orchestra – national tour partners incl. Total (oil & gas) & Transfield Holdings
- Australian Museum – Rio Tinto
- Bangarra Dance Theatre – production partners include BHP Billiton & Boral
- Bell Shakespeare – leading partner – BHP Billiton
- Black Swan State Theatre Company – Principal Partner – Rio Tinto; Education & Regional Partner – Chevron
- Musica Viva Australia – Education Partners – Rio Tinto & BHP Billiton/ Mitsubishi Alliance
- Opera Australia – Silver Partner – Exxon Mobil
- Queensland Ballet – Principal Partner – QGC (coal seam gas)
- Queensland Symphony Orchestra – Australia Pacific LNG (CSG & LNG)
- Queensland Theatre Company – Programme Sponsors incl. Wesfarmers Resources (significant open cut coal miner, operating in the Bowen Basin & Hunter Valley); Season partners incl. Sibelco Australia (mines Alumina Hydrate; Barytes; Bentonite; Clay; Dolomite; Feldspar; Gypsum; Lime; Limestone; Magnetite; Mineral Sands; Manganese Dioxide; Natural Red Iron Oxide; Nepheline Syenite; Silica; Talc).
- South Australia State Theatre Company – corporate partners include the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce
- State Library of NSW – indigenous Australia programme – Rio Tinto; Australian-Jewish community & culture – Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce
- Sydney Festival – 2014 Principal Partner – The Star casino
- Sydney Symphony Orchestra – Platinum Partner – Tianda – multinational investment holdings company headquartered in Hong Kong, primarily engaged in pharmaceutical & biotechnology, fast moving consumer goods, packaging & colour printing, property development, mining & energy, as well as financial services. It is exploring several uranium projects in Australia & large scale coal mines in China; Major partners incl. Kimberley Diamond Company NL
- Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s partners include Island Specialty Timbers
- West Australian Ballet – Principal Partner – Woodside; Major sponsors include Wesfarmers (Wesfarmers crops up quite often – the company is a significant open cut coal miner, operating in the Bowen Basin & Hunter Valley and owns eight chemical, gas and fertiliser businesses, including Australia’s only manufacturer of sodium cyanide, which is used in the mining industry for gold extraction).
- West Australian Opera – Principal Partner – Wesfarmers
- West Australian Symphony Orchestra – Principal Partner – Wesfarmers; Platinum Partners incl. Chevron; concerto partners incl. ConocoPhillips Australia (operate two legacy assets: the Bayu-Undan offshore facility in the Timor Sea, and the Darwin LNG facility in the Northern Territory. Another significant operation is the Australia Pacific LNG project, a substantial coal seam gas to LNG operation in Queensland in which ConocoPhillips is a joint venturer and the downstream operator). Overture Partners incl. Mitsui & Co. (Australia) Ltd., the wholly owned Australian subsidiary of Mitsui & Co. In Australia Mitsui manages a diverse portfolio of businesses in industries including chemicals, coal, food, gas, iron ore, oil, power generation, salt, steel products and woodchips.
This list doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. I’m not advocating a jihad on these organisations. Make up your own minds.