Sydney Biennale’s decision to cut ties with one of its key sponsors has prompted Australian arts minister George Brandis to call for changes to funding policies.
Transfield Holdings, which owns infrastructure and renewable energy businesses, was a key player in the foundation of Sydney Biennale in the 1970s. It also has a 12 per cent stake in Transfield Services, which supplies services to two of Australia’s offshore detention centres.
The connection prompted a protest by nine artists due to participate in this year’s festival, who threatened to withdraw from the programme altogether.
The protest led Sydney Biennale to sever ties with its long-term partner, in a move Brandis has criticised as ‘shameful’.
In a letter to Australia Council for the Arts obtained by The Australian, Brandis stated the festival’s move was an ‘appalling insult’ to the company.
He continued: ‘Equally appalling is the fact that the board of the Biennale, apparently under pressure from certain individual artists, has decided to decline to accept funding from a generous benefactor, because of the political opinion of those individual artists, concerning a matter which has nothing to do with the Sydney Biennale.’
Brandis also wrote that the decision ‘sends precisely the wrong message’ and may put off potential corporate sponsors in the arts in general. He also urged the council to consider Sydney Biennale’s decision when its Commonwealth funding is up for renewal next year.
He strongly advised that the council develop a policy which would deal with similar issues in future, whereby arts organisations which refuse funding on ‘unreasonable’ grounds should have their state funding revoked.
Brandis has said he is prepared to take the matter further if a policy covering these issues is not drawn up.
The minister’s statement has provoked debate from a variety of arts organisations on arms-length funding.
Emma Webb, creative producer of Vitalstatistix theatre company, told the Guardian: ‘Invariably, if arts organisations have no agency to genuinely negotiate the terms of sponsorship, for fear of losing government funding, this will have a chilling effect on the important role of autonomous institutions within a cultural democracy.’
But Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia, sided with Brandis: ‘The minister is expressing the views that many in the arts community have already expressed privately.’ More reaction from the industry can be found here.
This isn’t the first time corporate sponsorship for the arts has been called into question. In January, London’s Southbank Centre ended its association with Royal Dutch Shell, which many have speculated was a result of widespread condemnation from environmental activists.
Photo: Sydney Opera House during Vivid Sydney 2013 © Doug Beckers