Music, News & Commentary, Stage, Visual Arts

Why I boycotted this year’s Sydney Festival

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Every January it’s the same. After the salt-water riddled, endless-leg-of-ham-induced food coma of the Christmas break – the Sydney Festival always appears out of nowhere. So, after many years of being disorganised, and for only having myself to blame for missing out on the good stuff, I made sure that this year I was more prepared.

With my Festival guide under arm and a pen in the pocket, I headed down to the cafe to sip on a rich morning gift from my local barista lady. Then, settling in after a little people-watching procrastination, my caffeinated brain cells embraced the challenge and I began to flick through the guide and absorb the abundance of wonderful things to go and see.

But I soon found myself distracted. Rather than becoming inspired by the Festival guide, I found myself bemused as the seductive marketing for the Star Casino, peppered throughout the guide, forced my face to screw up.

Young, good-looking models smiled at me from their full page advertisements, beckoning me to visit the casino for a “decadent dinner”, or a late-night espresso Martini. The copywriting that complemented this projected utopia read like some sick form of poetry. To “roll the dice” the advertisements proclaimed, was the “sweetest of moments”.

Things got even worse. Flicking to the back of the guide, to the page presenting the festival sponsors, I heard myself swear rather audibly as I looked at it. There, at the top of the page — placed above even the City of Sydney in the visual hierarchy — beamed the big golden logo of the Star Casino.

I sat in the cafe in shock. Had they selected a casino to be the main corporate sponsor of Sydney’s largest cultural event? They had, it seemed. They certainly bloody had.

Taking stock, knocking back my third flat white and listening to the clicks of the coffee machine – I considered it all some more. Really, I mean really — should I have even been surprised?

After all, the pattern was set quite early on by our current State Government and by our current Minister for the Arts (who is also, incidentally – the Minister for Gambling). A definite pattern of prioritising big business over community interests. A pattern of neglecting our nascent cultural development. A pattern of appearing to support the Arts whilst actually ignoring the importance of the grassroots creative community where all of the talent bubbles up from.

Last year, I did something wild. I threw in my job in order to pursue a dubious creative idea that I’d been ruminating about for far too long. I had reached the crossroads where I either had to give it a crack, or to forever let it go. It was an empowering, exhilarating and stupid thing to do. I learnt a bucketload, but often wasted entire days or even entire weeks. And despite the big gamble, ultimately I didn’t reach the point that I had set out for.

Where the grassroots creative community in this city fights to survive, the Casino has apparently only thrived.

However, by immersing myself in some of this city’s creative corners, studios and writing rooms – I learnt a little of what it means to be an artist in Sydney.

One thing that jumped out at me immediately was that Sydney does have a rich coterie of truly jostling, ambitious and generous creative folk. A community that is talented and passionate and who continues to show up to create – every single day.

Sadly though, members of our local creative community get little individual financial support from the NSW State Government and they create in a city where their momentum is consistently stifled.

This is a community that is invested in exploring what it means to live in a young culture like Australia. A community that explores what it means to be a Sydneysider. It is a community that yearns for more small gallery space to show the public their work in. It’s a community who needs more venues to perform in, so they can thump their bass drums and thrash those sexy guitars. These are people who create things to give to the community because they are insightful and curious about this exciting city in which we live and want to share that with us.

Yet, juxtaposed right alongside the challenges that this creative community faces to survive – sits the the reality of just how easy life has been made for an establishment like the casino. An establishment that appears to have little interest in contributing to the community. An establishment that operates upon a shrewd and time-tested business model geared to eventually always win. A gambling industry that causes inestimable social damage and is skilled at taking the hard-earned dollars of the most vulnerable.

The Star Entertainment Group share price when Mike Baird came to power on 17 April, 2014 was $2.79 per share. Only three months ago (Oct 2016), this share price had steadily grown to a price of over $6.00 per share. The value of the casino had more than doubled under this State Government. Where the grassroots creative community in this city fights to survive, the Casino has apparently only thrived.

The art world has historically often relied upon the patronage of the wealthy, the upper classes and burgeoning businesses. Call out any of the great painters, for example – Goya, Manet or Caravaggio – and you can be sure that at one point they had a backer with plenty of cash. If we are to have a vibrant and exciting Festival, we will likely always need sponsors.

We elect our politicians to make decisions and to select partners that share our values, act maturely and have the best interests of the community at heart. There is a responsibility for our elected representatives to only select sponsors that have similar cultural values to those of the cultural event that they are contributing money towards. It is the responsibility of the government and festival organisers to ethically curate those who they align themselves with.

Selecting a business like the city’s only casino to be the largest sponsor of our most important cultural event is not just bad taste. In my opinion, it is probably also unethical and it’s undeniably culturally negligent.

With Casino Mike days away from exiting stage left, we can only hope that Gladys and the people she surrounds herself with will learn from the cultural mistakes made by Baird and his cronies. We can also only hope that she will operate with more class.

Returning home after the coffee shop, still jittery from the caffeine and the anger, I placed the Festival guide on the bench and considered it. There were so many interesting things to go and see. There was so much discussion about a city that I love. However, I made the decision that I simply couldn’t go. It just didn’t feel right to me. And to think I’d been so damn prepared and excited by it all! “Oh well – there’s always next year” I thought to myself. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to go next year.


43 responses to “Why I boycotted this year’s Sydney Festival

  1. Who else do you expect to fund the festival? Apart from the government there are only a few institutions with enough money to help Sydney Festival stay afloat. I get that casinos are evil but without them it’s possible the event wouldn’t run.

  2. By now everyone should be well aware that governments are amoral entities, untroubled by things like scruples and principles. And that is how a large chunk of the population likes it
    (including, icky as it may seem, many high profile schmoozers and cruisers in the arts sector).

    But if the average punter and artistic practitioner prefers their activities to survive their principle and scruple sniff test, then by all means boycott away.

    It won’t make the amoral majority rethink their positions or behave any better, but the boycotter can at least feel more comfortable in themselves.

    (… not a great fan of those narcissistic types who feel the need to make a public martyr of themselves though … that just becomes self-defeating)

  3. How long have you been living in Sydney? Was this the first Festival you boycotted? The Star has been a sponsor of the Festival for many years as far as I can recall. This is definitely not the first year anyway.

  4. You make it sound like the festival organisers just have to sit back and “select” a major sponsor from a long list of organisations begging for the opportunity to pour a lot of cash into the event. They have so many applicants they can just “select” the one that’s the most community minded…

    It’s nothing like that

    For all it’s faults, at least the casino is putting some of its profits back into sponsoring an event that you and a lot of sydneysiders are rather fond of.

    No sponsor = no event

    1. Hi Stephen,

      Yes – that’s exactly what I’m saying. That a sponsor is selected, chosen, a decision is made at some point!

      If you think the casino is a sensible choice, it is your prerogative. However, to say the event could not happen with our only gambling house feels far fetched! Glad you liked the article.

  5. To quote a friend, this piece should be titled “Man with pen sits up and finally notices dire state of Australian arts funding”.

  6. Rutegar and Rachel – what extraordinary responses.

    Rutegar, you’re actually making a case for never acting on principle and dismissing anyone who does as a narcissist? Really? And Rachel, you’re really saying that it’s better to sup with the devil because there’s no choice?

    If we don’t act on principle ever, we’re truly lost. And I don’t believe there was no funding alternative for the festival. Corporate Australia supports a range of events like this. If it meant that it got a little less, then we’d all adjust – and feel better about supporting it and not colluding with the attempt by the gambling industry to enhance it’s perceived respectability.

    1. Acting on principle is excellent. Dismissing a hard reality of the funding and sponsorship game because “I don’t believe” reflects a personal characteristic that need not be articulated, no?

  7. Do you understand the mechanics of the Sydney performing arts scene? As the other commenters seem to understand: no sponsorship = no festival.

    Also, you really aren’t as charming as you seem to think you are.

    1. Perhaps I need some charm school Luke!? The article says quite clearly that there is reliance on sponsors. My opinion is just that the casino is a bad cultural fit.

  8. “An establishment that appears to have little interest in contributing to the community. An establishment that operates upon a shrewd and time-tested business model geared to eventually always win. A gambling industry that causes inestimable social damage and is skilled at taking the hard-earned dollars of the most vulnerable.”

    You are so wrong. The Star Sydney contributes to the local community of Pyrmont in many ways. They not only sponsor Sydney Festival, but Barnardos, Taronga Zoo, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, Sydney Swans, ANZ and run many volunteer programs with employees and local businesses. So the money the business makes, does go back in to the community, as opposed to the star not caring about anyone but themselves.

    Secondly, I’d love to know the business model your referring to, as far as I’m concerned that doesn’t exist. A real gambler understands how games work and they don’t gamble with the belief they will eventually win, so therefore that goes to show your lack of knowledge around that subject. As far as taking money off the most vulnerable-not only do they exclude or remove people if they feel fit, they also offer gambling programs to family members of gamblers as well as the person with the problem. Nobody forces anyone to gamble. so once again you are wrong.

    Your nonsense response towards why you did not go to Sydney Festival is ridiculous and immature. not only has The Star been a sponsor this year, they have been most years. So would you have gone all the other years prior if you werent busy and if you knew The Star was a sponsor? What a ridiculous article, wasted 5 minutes of my life.

    1. Hi there Anon,

      If a business sponsors, or gives money to, a not-for-profit – the money is a tax write off. So, each dollar that the Casino gives to the festival is one less dollar of taxable revenue. This looks good on the books!

      Also, by aligning itself with ‘nice and wholesome’ brands like Taronga Zoo, or the Sydney Swans – the Casino gains brand leverage from these relationships. By standing next to these trusted, household brands – what the casino wants us to think is “hey look, we’re just like these guys!”. I call it Corporate Doublethink. Wake up and smell the roses.

    2. What level of damage in society is acceptable enough to you to be able to be offset by charitable donations? And I use the term “charitable donations” very loosely. There’s nothing charitable about them at all. They’re the cost of doing business. They should show up on a profit and loss statement as Marketing and Public Relations expenses.

      The harm gambling causes in the community is immense. How is it that you don’t get that? What studies are referring to when you make assertions about gamblers’ states of mind, motivations, expectations and levels of self control? These are purely creations of your own imaginings or just plain dissembling. The gambling industry thrives and prospers from the vulnerability and weakness of people to some degree or other. What is well documented is that it takes more money relative to wealth from the least well off in the community. This sanitized picture you paint of casinos is uninformed and disingenuous.

      The Sydney Festival is auspiced by the City of Sydney and, as the central local government body in the state, should well recognize the harm this lecherous industry causes and not be seen to be enhancing its standing by accepting sponsorship from it. This is an industry schooled by the tobacco lobby on how to massage an image. Perhaps you think that we should let that industry promote its wares via such sponsorship as well.

  9. I understand what you’re saying but I think the problem is a boycott hurts the festival and the artists performing. Do you also refuse to go to British films because they are funded by the lottery?

    Rather than boycotting the festival, maybe you could start a movement to lobby our new premier to give more money to the arts so that Sydney Festival doesn’t have to go begging to corporate sponsors.

    There are plenty of ways to raise more money. Impose a small tax on cinema tickets for instance, like France does. It’s not impossible it just requires the community to want it, and to make their wants known to their representatives….

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      I agree with your ideas. Boycotting was the only immediate thing that I could think of at the time. There is an increasing movement in Sydney against the influence of gambling. Just like the lockouts, the tide against this is building. Your ideas will not be lost! Thanks for your comment.

  10. Joseph you have very right to voice your opinion and take a principled stand. To be generous I will assume that you have not for very many years noticed anything about sponsorship of this festival, read the program etc. Let me give you an invitation. Cut back on the coffees and make a personal donation to the festival. If enough of us did that then the festival might not have to take what you seem to think is dirty money. And yes ask anyone who knows me what I think about the ‘gambling industry’ and what it does to people. Second challenge is to write a list of the clean money sources….thats right; sources of funding for which you or I or anyone else who drinks coffee thinks is morally, ethically pure. We won’t need small font.

    1. Thanks Mark. I had no idea the Casino sponsored the festival every year. Had I known, I would have written a protest piece sooner!

  11. I’ve seen some wonderful things at the festival, including Ladies in Black at the Lyric Theatre, at the Star. We had dinner at a restaurant in the Star beforehand – all in all a great night out.

    I don’t like casinos, but I do like good productions, and good food.

    1. Glad you had a good time, Nigel! Maybe The Casino can use your comment as a testimonial on their website!? Watch this space.

  12. Hey Rachel – how about Government Taxes pay for the festival. They are spending over $16 billion on westCONex, they sold off electricity and public housing and have a budget in surplus, so I can’t see how they cannot afford a few million for this festival?

  13. Ill informed rubbish. If you knew anything about the casino industry in Australia, you would know that the surge in the Star Entertainment Group’s share price has more to do with them winning the bid to build a new casino and residential complex in Brisbane.

    By all means boycott and assist in the damage and starvation of the arts.

    If your conscience really prevents you from patronising gambling sponsored arts, then do something about it. Many arts organisations including the Sydney Festival would welcome your donation. Better still – why don’t you do something active to oppose gambling. That would show real conviction

      1. Thanks Joe. So I’m amused that with all of the talent at its disposal the Daily Review puts someone with so little background on Sydney Festival in the firing line of all of the commentators here. You have been put in an interesting position. With only days left to go in the festival you might have made more impact with a fortnight’s earlier appearance. But of course thats editorial’s call not yours. On another point is typing stuff on our computers something ‘active’? Well if it is I’m going to start actively going to the gym on my keyboard! Care to take up one or two of my challenges? Talk, journalism and our posts on social media are cheap after all! I’m genuine to join you in a donation to the festival. I’ll even take you to a show next year if you can stomach it!

        1. Hi Mark – I wanted to write the article sooner! Time is of the essence with these things. I’m just thankful it got published with one week left. Call it active, call it inactive, call it what you will. I believe in putting your money where your mouth is. In backing your own opinion. Afterall, it’s far more pro-active – then your re-active reply (which anyone can crack out on a keyboard in a matter of minutes!)

  14. It would be better if Joseph O’Donoghue stated which companies he would prefer the arts community to take money from. My guess is that very few, if any, companies would be compliant with his requirements. I seem to remember, for instance, that artists boycotted a major arts event because the sponsor Transfield provided services in the refugee control area.

    If this O’Donoghue holier-than-thou attitude to sponsorship prevailed no sponsorships would be acceptable, I believe. Not even from the State and Federal governments. After all, a large part of their money comes from the very companies that O’Donoghue finds so repellent.

  15. I won’t go near a casino on principle either, Joseph. Add to the misery caused directly to addicted gamblers, you have the local drug dealers laundering their cash. Never been to Sydney Festival as far as I can recall. Actually, I tried to go to Opera in the Park once but it rained. Not that happy the SSO has to rely on Airlines to keep them going either but seems its the way these days. Very concerned about the mainstreaming of gambling. Should be treated like cigarettes with advertising bans etc.
    Only a psychology undergraduate, so can’t confirm if you’re a narcissist or not.

  16. thank you Joseph – i did not know but it is part of the creeping corporatisation of the community democracy and absolutely appalling – the Sydney Festival should be ashamed given the known, proved and widely discussed damage that corporate gambling does to so many individuals, families and communities.
    If we consider the disgraceful pandering to the Packer Barangaroo Point GIANT CASINO we need to look no further to the deadly corporate cancer threatening our democracy,

  17. As an arts person continually on the path of eking out a living, I would say that while I appreciate your decision to act on your ethical stance, I think it is your loss to have not supported the festival and its array of artists doing their stuff. While gambling is certainly a scourge on society, you would undoubtedly agree that artistic practice is not and needs all the help it can get to continue thriving and offering its much needed reflections.
    I get that you maintain the Casino is not a great fit but if not accepting the Star Casino’s sponsorship means the festival does not go ahead or can’t afford to bring out excellent one man shows like Huff which I saw tonight, and The Encounter which I am planning to see, along with supporting important local/global stories such as Prize Fighter. Then I say accept funding where we can get it (with very clear expectations on both sides), and let the content of the Festival’s artistic program speak for itself – that is, a platform for artistic diversity and importantly an avenue for artists to reveal their often hard won, often lowly paid creative endeavours which often explore contentious issues. This is the beauty of a festival and Sydney’s January enterprise in my experience has always had challenging and thought provoking works that often fly in the face of the capitalist project. I only get to see a couple of festival shows during this time because I’m always working on another show which gets a bit of support from Yamaha – I guess you would have problem with that too given their long history with coal industries etc. I have certainly given it thought but really the reality of their support saves quite a bit on a what is a very tight budget. January in Sydney means many things to me but I always give myself the gift of watching other artists do their thing in order to support them and the festival and in doing so, I allow myself the indulgence of being informed and entertained, and while I might question dubious relationships between sponsors and arts organisations I seldom think about this when I am actually watching the tremendous acts of art itself.

    As artists if we examine all the companies that support Sydney Festival or any other festival, we might find that as artists we have to boycott all events with major sponsors and where would that leave us? Even your cup of coffee (no doubt single origin), that morning had its own mix of ethical and not so ethical steps to allow it to reach your taste-buds. The question of how ethical can cash-strapped arts organisations be, is a difficult one to answer. If we want to continue getting work out there the whole thing of sponsorship is a minefield but in my way of thinking, if a piece of theatre or art or dance etc can move people to understand themselves and the world around them better, then we have to take what we can get and its up to the Festival to negotiate these sponsor relationships so as they don’t intrude on content or overload potential audiences with branding.

    Apologies for the long post, it could well have been longer! Essentially, I understand your position but I agree with other comments which suggest you take up a battle with those at the coal face of corruption and steer away from criticising the Sydney Festival which is undoubtedly made up of people with art in their hearts and like most in the arts world are always struggling to make ends meet.

    1. Hi Marianne – I think all of your comment is valid and to be honest I did ‘um’ and ‘ah’ as to whether or a not a boycott was the right approach. I agree it’s drastic and certainly at the expense of the creative community I care for. More so – at the expense of a culture I care for. But that said, Sydney has tolerated a suspicious relationship between the State government and the casinos for far too long. Enough is enough. Seeing the Casino now being allowed to wade into the territory of our Arts and our cultural development is too much for me.

      Granted too that it is a tough challenge to find a sponsor who aligns with the values mentioned. Michelangelo’s David, for example – was funded by the Medici family – who were (amongst many other things) ruthless regional warlords. Imagine if we didn’t have that!?

      I’m simply advocating more diligence in the process of selecting sponsors, and more maturity.

  18. Get over yourself, mate. The only surprising thing about a casino sponsoring cultural events is that it’s a rare example of casinos doing their cash blind. Casinos get most of their money from people who have little interest in theatre, art, opera, etc. The marketing firm that sold the casino this sponsorship idea will probalby have a short life, at least with gambling managements. The casino may have have been led to believe that sponsoring arts would add lustre, kudos, or some class to their brand, which in turn could be monetized. Most unlikely. In the meantime, the arts festival was well advised to take the money. A comparable easy flow of sponsorship cash is unlikely to recur, once the casino’s management realises that the payoff won’t materialize. In the meantime, see as much of Sydney’s festival as possible, enjoy the sponsorship largesse, and smirk at the credulity of the Casino management’s faith in value for money from arts sponsorship.

    1. Thanks Andrew. The decision to sponsor the festival is undoubtedly about what is called ‘brand leverage’ or ‘positive brand alignment’. These things are difficult to monetise. However, they are powerful in tranforming the public’s mindset of how the Casino is perceived. It’s nuanced and subtle and it works. Glad you’re out their though soaking up the Casino’s largesse! It looked like a good lineup.

  19. Thanks for taking such a noble stand and an extra thank you for the lengths you took to explain your principles to us all; most people aren’t comfortable talking about themselves at such length so it’s a breath of fresh air to find someone so inwardly focused.

    Even reading the article I knew the comments section was going to be loaded with unhelpful counter-points like “But the casino has been a sponsor for years already, hasn’t it?”, “doesn’t the UK and Europe use all their lottery ticket sales to fund their arts (movies, galleries)?” and various other unpleasant realities that poison the spirit of the piece but, well, these people don’t understand a stance of principle doesn’t necessarily have to be grounded in reality. Since when has it been bad to dream of a Utopia (vast streams non-problematic arts funding)? Where’s the harm in holding real-life counterparts to this whimsical standard?

    It’s precisely this sort of writing that inspired me to donate to Daily Review to support future pieces; alas, I’m not certain all of my life choices and moral stances would pass your approval and so rather than taint the publication as a whole, I respectfully abstain.

  20. Further points to note –
    The Sydney Festival is a company and not a State Government agency and therefore is obliged to work with the corporate sector – it is not a State Government responsibility to solely sponsor it although it is generously sponsored by the State and the City. Many people may disagree with a government or city policy but it is rare for someone to advocate staying away on that basis.
    Everyone should consider donating to the Sydney Festival as individuals or volunteering. The price of a coffee would be a good start.
    Uninformed attacks a few years back on the long established sponsorship model for arts and cultural almost killed off another ‘Sydney icon’, the Biennale of Sydney which has now diminished in size after the loss of its generous creator and benefactor.

    1. Hi Gregory.
      The Sydney Festival is not a company. It’s a Not For Profit (clearly stated on their instagram account). Any company that contributes cash to a not for profit can claim those donations as a tax write off. I do agree with the donation approach – perhaps some crowdfunding could work!? Volunteering is also a great idea too.

  21. Well Joe, I have to say I’m really surprised by the majority of comments on this piece. I naively assumed that artists and those that support the arts would share my social perspectives on this issue. If this is a representative sample of the art community’s views, then I guess I need to rethink.

    I’ve had glimpses of the art-above-all-else views of artists in the past, where there have been incomprehensible defences of certain positions because it was all in the name of art. Close artist friends of mine are among them and I always find it confusing and distressing.

    I know this might be inflammatory but I’m going to say it anyway. These comments are, with very few exceptions, self serving reframes of the impact of gambling on society, or plain willful ignorance. As long as art is served, nothing should be questioned or examined – not social impact, not conscience, and anyone who does, is just [insert derogatory epithet here]. You sure copped a lot of abuse Joe but were gracious in response.

    It’s all very disappointing.

    1. Thanks Daniel.

      The comments certainly don’t reflect the countless conversations I’ve had on the issue. The vast majority of people I’ve spoken to are disgusted by the fact the Casino was chosen as the main sponsor for the festival. Comments on the contrary are completely fine! Ultimately, readers and the community will make up their own mind.

  22. I’m boycotting the SF too, though not for noble reasons. I just couldn’t be arsed. I haven’t even looked at the program. In previous years, I’ve found the best stuff sells out quickly, or if it’s free, it’s too crowded. Or the art is too inaccessible (euphemism for pretentious crap).

    Plus it’s been just too fuckin hot to be bothered dressing up to go out.

  23. Casino’s are like sugar. They end up in everything we consume. I can absolutely guarantee that they would not be sponsoring the festival because of community spirit. They are sponsoring it because they expect to get more ‘victims’ through their doors.

    The problem is, of course, where do you draw your line in the sand. Alcohol, fried chicken, scum sucking bottom I mean law firms? In some way every sponsor is going to be tarnished. I don’t know the answer, because I don’t think there is one, but boycotting seems counter productive in today’s world. The rot is everywhere. At least let the arts get some good from it.

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