Arts sponsorship: blurred lines and mixed signals

Australia’s performing arts companies appeared to have no ethical guidelines on sponsorship, or that was the case until this morning when the umbrella group representing the 28 major companies released this statement, which is a kind of non-statement.

“Each Australian Major Performing Arts  Group company has its own Board and is responsible for its own governance. It is the responsibility of each of those Boards to act in a manner that is in the best interests of their company, in both the short and long term. Those Boards will as a matter of course consider a range of issues when dealing with donations and sponsorship arrangements and every case will be unique. The overriding aim will be to develop long term, strategic relationships on a sustainable basis for both the company and the donor or sponsor,” the AMPAG statement said, reiterating that all decisions are board decisions.

The statement was released after Daily Review had been asking major arts companies if they had ethical guideline policies in place, and if it was felt that future sponsorship could be affected by the recent Sydney Biennale and Transfield controversy. Biennale artists were successful in pressuring Biennale management to cut its ties with Transfield because of its involvement in offshore refugee detention camps.

The unprecedented action has sparked debate around the country, not the least among arts boards who are privately addressing the ramifications of artists taking action against the organisations they work with. The issue has become hotter in the past week because of continued protests by activists against the energy company Santos and its sponsorship of the Queensland Art Gallery, which the group Alpha Generation says is using the gallery to “launder” its “dirty money”.

Last week Fiona Menzies the director of Creative Partnerships Australia told Daily Review that just as private corporations have clear guidelines on which they will sponsor, arts companies should also have clear guidelines on whom they would accept sponsorship from.

Daily Review‘s questions to performing arts companies mostly met with no response, though some responded by saying they declined to respond.

“We see the matter relating to the Biennale as an extremely isolated instance and the issue is not one that currently has great significance for us. So we can’t see that there will be any real purpose served in responding to these questions,” a spokesperson for the State Theatre Company of South Australia said. As of today, other companies have referred our queries to the AMPAG statement as their response to our questions asking about  ethical sponsorship guidelines and if the Biennale issue could affect future sponsorship.

The Biennale case is the biggest issue to impact the arts since the Bill Henson sexualisation of children controversy of 2008. That incident continues to infect Australian artistic life through the continued attacks on Henson and the  hastily introduced Australia Council “protocols” for working with people under age 18.

The Biennale issue has the potential to impact on all arts companies. It might be irrelevant to some companies that artists protested against a sponsor’s commercial attitude to asylum seekers, but what is relevant is that a group of disparate, geographically isolated, freelance artists can band together and push back against an organisation run by full-time paid arts managers and the community and business leaders who most often fill their boards.

An arts company is only as good as the artists it represents. Whether you agree with the 51 out of about 90 artists who protested Transfield’s involvement in the Sydney Biennale, it is an artist’s role, as it has always been,  to question, protest and push against the status quo.

Every arts company in the country probably receives funding from an organisation that some could claim is “tainted” whether a bank, a superannuation fund, a mining company or a philanthropic organisation, depending on where its investments are made. Arts companies need to be clear so that their employees, artists and audiences know who is helping fund their jobs and their entertainment. Both the Henson and Biennale issues have shown that controversies can ignite and take hold without warning.

By contrast with our performing arts companies, many of the organisations most affected by the Henson fallout and potentially in the firing line from the Biennale fracas, have clear guidelines about sponsorship.

The Queensland Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria have guidelines and state government enforced protocols. QAG’s Celestine Doyle said that “ethical behaviour and fair dealing are among those important principals in partnership considerations.”

“We wouldn’t for example have a sponsorship relationship with organisations that were discriminatory, whose products are overwhelmingly considered by the community to be harmful, or where opposition reaches a level of social consensus – such as tobacco. Further, tobacco advertising is prohibited so of course we wouldn’t accept tobacco sponsorship,” said Doyle, the gallery’s deputy director of marketing and business development.

The NGV will not take sponsorship from organisations that include ‘”tobacco companies, political organisations or lobby groups, religious organisations; and organisations whose activities may be contrary to community values.”

Michael Baldwin, the National Gallery of Australia’s assistant director of development, marketing and operations said new NGA partnerships are preceded by a “thorough consideration scoping possible conflicts and identifying areas of potential concern with regard to the organisation’s history and reputation, particularly with regard to environmental and social impact and governance principles.”

“In light of recent developments surrounding the Sydney Biennale, the NGA is drafting a sponsorship risk register as a mechanism to assist the gallery in anticipating and responding to possible areas of conflict or concern with regard to current and prospective sponsors,” Baldwin said, though he said he did not think sponsorship will become more difficult as a result of the Biennale fallout.

QAG’s Doyle was more circumspect about the effects of the Biennale. “I do think there will be an impact for a time. Securing sponsorship is always challenging. But I believe the relationships we build with our partners are strong and built on shared ambitions. I am confident we will continue to generate sponsorship and philanthropic support to achieve our vision to build audiences for visual art,” she said.

4 responses to “Arts sponsorship: blurred lines and mixed signals

  1. Humphrey is right to congratulate Ray for keeping up the pressure. The public service mindset of the so-called professional end of Australian Arts just wants the biennale of Sydney incident to go away, hence all the please to now forget about the ‘the politics’ and just look at the art. Basically leave half you brain at the door please. The 51 Biennale artists who signed the letter against Transfield were right to point out the sick ethos behind Malcolm Turnbull’s statement that such artists were “viscous” ingrates. If Turnbull can’t see how this makes him look then he’s just dumb. In the 21st Century artists are not bound in servitude. Just because we get public money to make art for free public consumption doesn’t mean we are servants of the State. In fact visual artists by taking low or no wages or even losing money on producing work for the large audiences Tony Ellwood gets! I should know I did just that for him at Qld Art Gallery. Also we must remember that an event with less public funding such as Sculpture By the Sea gets huge crowds too. If it’s free people go. After the junk art in the Biennale of Sydney one wonders why Sculpture By the Sea doesn’t join with the Biennale of Sydney. Materially the objects on display aren’t so different. Think about it!

    Protocols for ethics are usually useless. Why? In my 30 year art career few public or private galleries or institutions even issue contracts or letters stating who provides what? I know Australia Council says that a contract is a requirement for funding of an institution such as Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art but certainly under former Director Robert Leonard no contract was ever offered to me by him. A lot of publicly funded institutions constantly don’t follow what they are meant to do. Or they offer the most basic of ‘letters’ such as one Tony Ellwood sent me. Why? The want to not get caught out. A lot of public galleries (not QAG) flout artist copyright so often it’s obscene. Such institutions just don’t bother. So protocols aren’t worth the appear they are printed on in my book.

    The pendulum has swung far to far in favour of the gatekeepers AWAY from artists. This would be fine if the public servants want to make the art themselves, and let’s face it so much contemporary art is so bad and banal anyone could make it! The deafening silence of the arts ‘professionals’ is telling. They have nothing to offer but more of the same. Most don’t even know what is good or bad in contemporary art, they just think that they do a job and get a wage and mouth nice sounding platitudes and history will sort out the bad from the good. The tail,is wagging the dog I’m afraid. Woof woof…

    1. Ditto Humphrey Bower and Scott Redford. Thank you Ray Gill: your piece prods consciences and keeps the pot boiling while urging us to keep alert to the consequences of sponsorship. While Boards of Arts organisations most certainly have to take responsibility for the decisions they make, individual practitioners of whichever Art can only be caught between rocks and hard places. The best one can do is note with interest and occasional concern
      the profiles of sponsors as they emerge each year. Some readers may remember a time when the Sydney Theatre Company accepted sponsorship from Australia’s pre-eminent manufacturer of poker machines: eye-brows were raised but the money taken. The recent linkage between the STC and the Defence Department for the national tour of LONG WAY HOME raised eyebrows again but the sentiments expressed seemed to wash away the doubts. In the not too distant future the STC Board will be determining how much to accept from its neighbouring casino. Will the Barangaroo/Packer business be considered as tasteless and compromising as Transfield was to the Sydney Biennale?

  2. Thanks Ray for keeping up the pressure with an excellent article, and Kevin for a most useful and practical link on how this has been addressed in the UK. Once again artists have provided leadership, and in the UK at least arts companies and funding bodies have commendably followed suit. The Australian Major Performing Arts Organisations need to get their act together, and artists as well as national and state funding and advocacy bodies like the Australia Council can provide leadership here as well. Ethical guidelines are a given in academic and research institutions, and in principle arts organisations should be no different. This applies just as much to sponsorship as it does to projects and activities. Nicolas Rothwell’s recent piece in The Australian Weekend Review on the debacle surrounding the Songlines project and related exhibitions demonstrates just how dangerous the current ad hoc approach of cultural institutions in comparison with academic and research institutions can be. I agree with the views expressed in the Platform link that – with regard to sponsorship at least – guidelines rather than a formal protocol should be sufficient to avoid the risk of future misunderstandings. It would at least be a good start. Best, Humphrey

Leave a Reply to Kevin Smith Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Newsletter Signup