Is there any clean money left to fund the arts?

The Sydney Biennale boycott campaign has raised important – and difficult – questions about how we fund the arts. Wexner Centre, CC BY-NC-ND

In the wake of the Sydney Biennale’s split from its major sponsor Transfield in recent days, certain uncomfortable questions are again floating very close to the surface.

In the late 1990s, I had a successful career in finance. As a free-market hawk, I had revelled in the introduction of the neoliberal agenda and, armed with an education from a conservative economics department, honestly believed a free market would lead a fairer society for all.

In retrospect, I was naïve – but that’s who I was.

Working in finance, I was well compensated and built a healthy share portfolio, purchased property and enjoyed the benefits of an expense account.

For reasons not of concern here, I took a year off and travelled around the world on what was originally meant to be a romantic holiday of wine, women, and dance. In the end it ended up very differently: I witnessed child labour, environmental destruction, the displacement of indigenous people and people excluded from beaches because of the colour of their skin.

The failings and brutality of the free market were laid bare.

On returning to Australia I made some life-changing decisions, including investigating the behaviour of the organisations I had invested in. It was a financially difficult decision, but I slowly divested myself from the shares of organisations that compromised human, social, environmental or labour rights.

I have attempted to direct my funds and consumption patterns towards ethical organisations ever since. It’s not an easy thing to do, and I find myself making all sorts of compromises: the pasta company that’s good on genetically modified foods but has a homophobic chief executive; the large supermarket that sells organically produced tomatoes but has questionable retail practices; the fair-trade coffee company with excessive packaging.

We love smartphones but recent research into mineral supply chains by University of Sydney PhD student, Darian McBain is exposing the grim social and environmental costs of consumer electronics, including links to the funding of guns.

I love watching rugby league – but what do I do about the gambling and alcohol sponsors?

The money trail

Anyone who has worked with community-based, human rights or arts organisations knows the difficulty of accessing funds and trying to survive.

It’s here things get even more complex: how does a small community-based organisation such as a local sports team survive without money from the so-called “club industry”. You know, the money that comes from problem gamblers that are losing their homes.

Or what of one of my favourite theatre companies, sponsored by BHP Billiton, when we are being told constantly that mining projects the world over are accelerating climate change?

When I was the Campaigns Director at Aid/Watch, an independent monitor of Australian foreign aid spending, we a had very clear policy on funding: no money from corporations. But we did take money from philanthropic organisations who made their money from the share market – which put us back to the same loop.

We had to investigate the difference between the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation. It was complex, but as an organisation that specialised in finding the money trail of large infrastructure projects, it was something we became very good at. Despite this, I could never honestly feel each and every dollar that entered our bank account was clean.

Arts funding and dirty money

One of my research areas has been on understanding the role of the arts in society. I am particularly interested in why, in a time of economic hardship, it’s seen as important to fund the arts.

Despite the many social and health benefits we know of that flow from funding the arts, many governments choose to give very little to the arts. The answer for the arts community is philanthropic funds from organisations.

The problem is that it is never “clean” money: BHP Billiton sponsors Bell Shakespeare; the Belvoir’s partners include alcohol companies. There are links between the National Gallery of Victoria and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (the founding member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce is a trustee) – uncomfortable for those supporting Tibet.

As most of us know now, Transfield Holdings has a long history of supporting the arts, including assisting in establishing the Biennale of Sydney. It has a stake in Transfield Services, which holds large contracts related to the immigration detention centre at Manus Island.

This relationship between Transfield and the Biennale of Sydney became the focus of protest as many artists, concerned about Australia’s policy of mandatory offshore detention, withdrew from the arts festival and many in the community called for the boycott. As a result, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis resigned last week as chair of the festival and the Biennale of Sydney severed its longstanding ties with Transfield.

There have been two reactions to this – each being equally valid.

The first is the pro-boycott movement, which are celebrating. This has been a successful boycott supported by many within the refugee community. It has assisted in raising awareness within the broader community.

The second response is by those who actually are asking, “what has been achieved?”

The overwhelming likelihood is that Transfield will not cancel its contract linked to the detention centre on Manus Island and what we have seen is a funding avenue compromised.

Some artists are voicing their concerns about feeling bullied. Others are acknowledging the freedom of artists to protest but are unhappy that in the process a long-term supporter of the arts has been singled out.

While I supported the boycott, I also saw a larger question being raised linked with my broader research: who should fund the arts?

This is a question the Biennale attempted to raise through an event dedicated to this very issue. I personally supported the event thinking that establishing such dialogue was exactly what such protests should encourage.

So who should fund the arts?

Maybe the government should be more active in funding such events through the Australia Council – but as has been pointed out to me, it is the government that has established the Manus Island detention camps, not Transfield.

So where does that leave us?

That is the question that many are asking now – and no-one really knows how to answer – for there is no such thing as “clean money”.


Further reading:

Artists’ victory over Transfield misses the bigger picture
The Biennale, Transfield, and the value of boycott
Should artists boycott the Sydney Biennale over Transfield links?

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