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The Transfield battle's won. But is there war ahead?

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.

13 responses to “The Transfield battle's won. But is there war ahead?

  1. Yes, sadly, Brandis and Turnbull are quite right in pointing to the stunning hypocrisy of the artists.
    If the artists rejected Australia Council or Government grants and awards, and only sold their works to customers with the right moral political views, perhaps they could make a case that they are standing on moral principle.
    Instead they have set back arts funding by philanthropists and they have damaged the Biennale through intimidating generous volunteer Board members they don’t happen to agree with politically.

    1. “Shouldn’t artists in principle reject any funding from a government that enacts policies artists oppose?”
      No. Artists should be discerning and effective in their protests, actions and boycotts. Besides, the hypocrisy of Transfield, Santos, Big Tobacco, etc in seeking the legitimacy of sponsorship makes them a different sort of target from government. For all its faults the government is the sum total of many tax-payer funded parts. You and I and the artists are some of that. Glad the debate is happening. Close down the off-shore detention centres

    2. One of the protesters, Melbourne artist Gabriella de Vietri, told the ABC:

      “There is a big difference between private and public funding,”

      “With public funding, our taxpayers’ money pays taxes and those taxes get redistributed into multiple industries, one of which is arts and culture. Those industries don’t have any bearing on each other.”

  2. I think Turnbull and Brandis’s comments are spot on. Second rate artists pushing ideology. If you don’t like something, then boycott it personally, don’t impact all other artists who may not sure your view. This is beyond free speech, it is economic vandalism.

    Brandis is correct in raising the valid question, if you can turn your back on $600K in funding, then why should the Govt stump up funds to cover the shortfall? It might reasonably consider redirecting those funds into other programs.

    Seriously, how naive are these artists? The reality is that money from all walks of life is the major driver of the art world, it is all about buying and selling goods.

    Who do they think buy the works they make? You are not asked to fill out a questionnaire on your political leanings when you hand over the $$ to buy a painting, video, photographic work or sculpture. Talk about extreme hypocrisy from the cultural elite.

    The lead ring leader received an Arts Council grant in October 2013 from the same govt that has had the same policy for virtually close to 10 years. The ALP had already introduced the Manus solution to stop people dying as a key part of its election platform.

    This boycott is as insidious as the BDS – all gesture , no outcome.

  3. Note how the politicians and power-brokers are working to silence dissent. Big Tobacco long delighted in having lots of sponsorships that could thus be separated from their murderous activities. It is a measure of the normalisation of concentration camps for people who have committed no crime, that such as Transfield could expect to profit from that as business-as-usual. Note that they gave away their participation in the Arts Festival, not their participation in repression.

  4. It’s hard to believe that the public consciousness has degenerated so far in this country that artists are being castigated for making a stand on issues outside the confines of a gallery. And that commentators – including your own Craig Dunlop and Helen Razer – are simultaneously pushing the puerile notion that artists should take their gripes more directly to the source.

    So, it’s like, “stay there in the gallery where we can see you, but if you want to make a mess, please take that outside…over there, to Canberra.”

    Razer, Dunlop, what do you think of the response of Brandis and Turnbull? Could the effect of this protest have gone anywhere nearer the source? These fascists are taking it personally. A couple more actions like this and who knows, they might end up playing their hand against some real Aussies.

    And maybe then this fat, sleeping country will wake up to itself.

  5. Well I feel that artists are more likely to be sensitive to the conditions of asylum seekers – they are imaginative people which makes it more likely that at least some of them will find it hard to shut out thoughts of suffering. The arts have always struggled with political and government authority… Of course some art is decadent and cares not who pays as long as it is indulged. But in other cases, there is a world view behind the work and you cannot just buy or sponsor work and expect the artists to ‘shut up and play nice’. And you can’t pat them on the head and say ‘you may only protest in the sanctioned way’… Art should not be tamed… It is not advertising space for rent. Sponsors and govts might think that, just because gallery openings seem civilised affairs with wine, cheese and chatter, that the arts should be safe for suits to lord it over us all with their money, power and control. Of what value would such art be? Trinkets and baubles and meaningless monuments to the $. It is sad that a well intentioned person such as the chairman of the Biennale feels offended, but is it more so than the hurt caused to wretched souls who find themselves being managed by an ill equipped, dehumanised, outsourced prison regime? Whatever you think of the asylum seeker issue, it is unconscionable that it has been traded on for electoral gain by shameless politicians. The right chose to use it to capture votes in the wake of hansonism and have deliberately played games with this issue ever since. The ALP have tried hard but due to this electoral gain mentality from the right, they could not solve it… What a truly disgraceful, depressing state of affairs has been created. Ignoring the warnings of doctors in detention centres, whipping up anti boat sentiment and racism in the community, avoiding scrutiny and hiding behind the military. Has anyone heard them say they will take more refugees from camps? Of course not, because they prefer not to upset the xenophobic vote… Bravo artists… Everyone who cares should support the biennale for its difficult stand.

  6. Well the image of all the different animals drinking from the same pond by a group of Chinese craftsmen and Cai Guo-Qiang is popular as it is how we like to imagine the world, how most of us (Left and Right) want the world to be: peaceful. If only! What we are seeing now in Australia is a total fracturing of the pluralist democratic myth of International Contemporary Art. Jean Baudrillard’s book The Conspiracy of Art is looking better and better, it’s main essay ‘Contemporary Art: Art Contemporary With Itself’ is online. However it’s apparent nihilism will put off many. In that essay Baudrillard says: “The revolutionary idea of contemporary art was that any object, any detail or fragment of the material world, could exert the same strange attraction and pose the same insoluble questions as were reserved for a few rare aristocratic forms known as works of art”. What he means is once we accepted into the hallowed ‘un-secular’ space of art any bit of detritus, any photograph of anything, any identity to validate any of these objects or videos then we opened up the floodgates to an eventual collapse of art into the real world. The fact that an anti-franking group wants to protest against Santos by poisoning this well at GOMA that we all supposedly drink from is proof that art succeeded in its Modernist utopian mission to merge with the world. The community anti franking activists have no particular hallowed ‘respect’ for the stuffed animals, they water can be redone as one says. And why should they? Their taxpayer dollars paid for part of it and it’s showing! It’s just a pretty stage set to be rebuilt in another place at another time. GOMA won’t save the water for example.

    But we also need to understand the mere fact that the stuffed animals are in GOMA at all needs far more transparency. The current situation Austalian culture finds itself in has been caused by the art public servants almost entirely. By NOT showing respect to both the public and artists in the form of honesty and transparency it is the art establishment that has caused paranoia, distrust and anger to build up in the artist community AND parts of the wider community to the point that it is now exploding. I always felt from my own personal experience at very high levels that a lot of government waged people were living on borrowed time and now it appears they are. George Brandis knows this too. QAGOMA paid a lot of money (privately donated probably for tax right off reasons) for the Cai Guo-Qiang work, reputedly millions of dollars. An astronomical price compared to what QAGOMA pays for local art. I myself did a big public art piece outside GOMA for a fee of $30,000 and an overall budget of $300,000. The big polar bears of mine that are (as popular as the stuffed Disneyland animals at the pond of love) I sold for less than production costs and were then gifted to GOMA by the people who I sold too. I’m sure they made no actual profit, we all just wanted them made. I was naive of course but these episodes show that one of the very core missions of the Qld Art Gallery, the collection and promotion of Qld art is being defeated by the mindset of the very people who run the gallery.

    In the end art is not the Disney dream everyone of us yearns for. Art is and has always been a battle zone. We are now seeing this in action. GOMA has to call in the police! ACCA run by Sydney Biennale Director Juliana Engberg had to shut down an evening talk due to a rumours about a protest. The same will be happening at MCA and AGNSW in Sydney. Call in the National Guard. Intern the artists and protesters! The myth of all styles served here that contemporary Art sold itself on is gone. It’s LNP art form now on. What was once covert self censorship by Government waged art ‘professionals’ is now in full collapse. It’s funny I know personally a senior curator at a major institution who slightly frets she/ he do virtually nothing on many days, maybe a couple of emails. So one wonders if a clean slate isn’t needed. Time will tell but as Baudrillard told us in the 90s with his last book the seeds of the downfall of contemporary art were sown in Modern art long ago. Looking back it was inevitable.

  7. I say good on the Artists for putting their money where their mouths are. As for Brandis’ threats – has he heard of the concept of free speech?

  8. ‘Artisits are best expressing themselves through their work.’ The patronizing implication of this statement says it all. I wish the same could be said for arts administrators. Artists like any other citizens have a right to express themselves in any way they choose within legal limits and should not be branded as ‘terrorists’ unless they contravene these limits. A government that threatens to punish arts companies by withdrawing public funding on the other hand deserves to be called ‘terrorist’ and clearly has no understanding of the nature of arm’s length funding or the difference between this and accepting corporate sponsorship, which is up to those companies, and in which artists and audiences likewise have every right to participate or not as their consciences dictate.

  9. Boycott whatever: An interview with public opinion for Crikey

    Q. Australia is the second-highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases. According to mainstream scientific opinion, these gases contribute to global warming which is likely to lead to catastrophic weather conditions in the future, endangering the survival of millions. Would you be willing to pay more for energy that pollutes the air if that helps reduce Australia’s carbon emissions?
    A. Australia contributes less than 1% of total greenhouse gases. Anything we do means virtually nothing in global terms. There’s no point paying more for something that won’t make a difference in the end.

    Q. But Australia is one of the largest exporters of coal to countries that do contribute to a large percentage of CO2 emissions. This financial year it’s estimated that Australia will ship 350 million tons of black coal. Should we reduced our economic dependence on coal?
    A. If we don’t supply the coal, someone else will.

    Q. Last year, more than 2,000 people died in a Bangladesh factory collapse making cheap clothing for the West. The demand for low prices by Western consumers contributed to the unsafe working conditions. Would people pay more for clothes so that workers’ lives wouldn’t be endangered?
    A. I’m sure the big companies make enough profit to cover this. Why wouldn’t you buy a cheaper product if it means you can have more money for other things? Ethical is just a marketing gimmick. It won’t make any difference in the end.

    Q. International organisations have criticised Australia’s policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers as inhumane. Do you think Australia should be more considerate about lives of these people?
    A. We have no alternative. We need to show that attempting to come to Australia is a bad idea, it will only end up in misery. If we don’t do that, when we will be swamped by boats. The ensuing demand on welfare will drain our economy and our community harmony will be jeopardised by their extremist politics and religion. There’s no choice.

    Q. A number of artists decided to withdraw from the Sydney Biennale in protest against mandatory detention. They succeeded in disassociating the event from its principal sponsor, which manages processing centres in Manus Island and Nauru. What do you think of their actions?
    A. There’s no likelihood that the government will change its opinion due to their actions. They’re only biting the hand that feeds them, making it less likely that the arts will find future sponsors. How can they think that their actions will make any difference in the end? It’s just self-indulgence.

    Q. Thank you for your time.
    A. You’re welcome, but I don’t think my individual thoughts will matter in the end. At least I hope not.

  10. Good on these Arts people standing up for principle. Brandis has no reason to stick his nose in – it’s none of the govt’s business.


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