Was it a just a skirmish or a sign of the revolution to come? That’s the question those who work in the arts are asking after last week’s unprecedented rejection of a sponsor’s money by an arts organisation because its artists objected to the source of its “dirty money”.
Last Friday arts patron, philanthropist, and director of Transfield Holdings, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis announced his resignation as chair of the upcoming Biennale of Sydney and that Transfield would cease its sponsorship of the event, which until this controversy erupted had had to work hard for international attention.
“There would appear to be little room for sensible dialogue, let alone deliberation,” Belgiorno-Nettis said of the highly organised artists who joined with activists to campaign against Transfeld’s links with the Biennale because of its contract with the federal government to manage detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. “Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of ‘blood on your hands’. I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naïve and offensive. This situation is entirely unfair.”
Since the announcement debate has raged on social media about the effectiveness of the artists’ victory. Will it change anything for those living in the detention centres, will it make Transfield reconsider its $1.2 billion contract to manage the incarceration, and closer to home, will it scare off sponsors seeking feel-good associations with arts companies?
Certainly the key to the artists’ anti-Transfield victory was that the urbane and well-liked Belgiorno-Nettis, whose family has given to the arts for decades, came under personal attack for his Transfield association. Corporate sponsors of the arts tend to be known by their brand name and those in management who dispense money to the arts are fairly anonymous.
This is why the controversy has become more intense, if not histrionic this week. Malcolm Turnbull blasted the protesting artists as “vicious” ingrates; today Arts Minister George Brandis brought out the heavy artillery by threatening that the government might review the funding of “shameful” arts companies who cave into artists “blackballing” sponsors because of political objections.
How the government would engineer such retrospective penalties is an unknown, but like its threats to the ABC, all it has to do is put arts company management on notice that its decisions are being closely watched. And if the government is interrogating how arts companies manage their sponsorship departments, perhaps it’s not a long bow to suggest it might like to interrogate the work they put in their galleries and on their stages.
Arts managers around the country have been nervously watching the Biennale saga unfold. Until the watershed decision by the Biennale to reject Transfield’s money it was generally understood that just as governments don’t negotiate with terrorists, arts managers did not negotiate with those who object to its sponsorship choices.
But commercial attitudes adjust over time as they keep pace with changing community standards. Once arts companies happily accepted sponsorship from tobacco companies. It’s that example that is emboldening artists and activists who selectively object to “dirty money” from sponsors who use arts companies to “launder” their image.
Arts managers could now be the meat in the sandwich between Brandis and artists and activists wanting to make a political point.
Yesterday, Brisbane protest group Generation Alpha — with a history of targeting mining company Santos for its fracking practices — threatened to stage a protest at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) this weekend. The group’s spokesman said a group of protestors will “poison” New York artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s huge and hugely popular installation Heritage 2013, which features 99 life-size animals drinking from a crystal clear pool of water.
Generation Alpha spokesman Ben Pennings told Daily Review the work would be symbolically “poisoned” and the idea came from his 14-year-old daughter who was outraged that Santos was associating itself with environmental purity. The group chose to target GOMA, he said, because of its size, rather than the small La Boite theatre company, which he also fingered for having objectionable sponsorship.
GOMA has responded the way it has to previous anti-Santos protests by issuing a statement:
“The artist and the QAGOMA support the right of groups such as Generation Alpha to protest peacefully in a way that doesn’t interfere with our visitors’ experience and safety, or the safety of the artworks on display.
“The Gallery does not comment on political issues but respects people’s opinions and supports the right to free speech.
“QAGOMA has no intention of ending its sponsorship agreement with Santos. Santos’ five year partnership with the Gallery is the most significant single corporate investment in the Gallery’s history, and has supported our summer exhibition series and our Children’s Art Centre.’’
This time GOMA has also called the police, who will be on hand at the weekend to stop any tampering with the artwork.
Pennings dismissed the suggestion that the interference with the artwork is an assault on Cai Guo-Qiang’s art. “It’ll be easy to fix up,” he said.
While Biennale artists might not endorse tampering with a work, it’s inevitable that art protests are more combustible when the visual arts are involved. Visual art gets more public and media attention, which is also why sponsors like the artform so much.
But could “dirty money” protests spread to other art forms? Two of the Biennale protestors wrote in The Guardian:
“Superannuation funds, city councils and universities around Australia also have links with Transfield and other providers of detention infrastructure. One by one we will insist that these institutions divest their connections to the mandatory detention infrastructure.”
The Australian Chamber Orchestra is sponsored by Transfield and its chairman Guido Belgiorno-Nettis is the executive director of Transfield Holdings. ACO general manager Timothy Calnin told Daily Review the Biennale protest was misguided and a personal attack on the Belgiorno-Nettis family.
“Artists are best expressing themselves through their work,” Calnin said, adding that the audience for music tends to be more conservative than it is for the visual arts. “None of our musicians have said anything about our Transfield sponsorship, though of course we were keeping them informed during the Biennale protest.”
Calnin says that while he and the board have been closely watching the events of the last month he doesn’t think the Biennale/Transfield saga will infect other arts companies.
Some artists, however, are hoping it does.