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We should value the Biennale protest, not threaten arts funding

Today it was reported that the Federal Minister for the Arts George Brandis has requested that the Australia Council draft a new policy to deal with grant applicants who refuse funding offered by corporate…

The Federal Minister for the Arts George Brandis has proposed a way to to deal with grant applicants who refuse corporate funding. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

Today it was reported that the Federal Minister for the Arts George Brandis has requested that the Australia Council draft a new policy to deal with grant applicants who refuse funding offered by corporate sponsors. This follows the recent protest by Biennale artists against Australia’s policy of mandatory detention.

Society owes a lot to artists who have had the gumption to protest.

German painter George Grosz gave us images of a Weimar Republic in turmoil. Photomontage artist John Heartfield, who anglicised his name in antipathy to the National Socialist regime, had the courage to take on the Party with images that continue to cast unlikely connections across the social and political fabric.

In Australia, during the initial phase of the national disgrace that is the Australian government policy on refugees, the Australian artists Juan Davila and Mike Parr found ways to imagine the suffering of asylum-seekers protesting at the Woomera detention centre.

In 2002, Parr had his lips and face literally sewn up in a gruelling performance. Davila painted a set of powerful canvases in the early 2000s in which the victims were Australians themselves.

The Biennale protest took a different form: that of boycotting the exhibition.

The boycott reminds us, in these days of seamless co-operation between artists, institutions, and their funding sources, that the old term “military-industrial complex” describes something worth worrying about. It came as a shock to learn, through the protest, that a branch of Transfield, the venerable corporate supporter of the Biennale of Sydney since its inception, makes money by running Australia’s detention centres.

The group of artists, in carefully considered letters such as this one from Turkish artist Ahmet Öğüt, wrote that they could not participate in a venture that relies upon “wealth generated from the mandatory detention policies”.

George Brandis' comments today in The Australian (suggesting future funding agreements through the Australia Council could demand the recipient does “not unreasonably terminate an existing agreement with a private partner”) form an ill-considered response to a fairly ordinary situation. It looks like a government meting out fiscal punishment to those who do not want the patronage of certain businesses, in this case those executing unconscionable government policies.

It also interferes with the precious arms-length administrative status of the tax-payer funded Australia Council. Corporate sponsorship is a two-way symbiosis that cannot thrive with a governmental sword of Damocles hanging over each party.

Forty years ago protesting corporate involvement in the arts was both common and done with panache.

It became the focus of the German-American conceptual artist Hans Haacke, who saw the cancellation of his 1971 exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum when he documented the relationship between a slum-tenement landlord and members of the museum board. Artists protested the funding of the Art & Technology exhibitions in California because of corporate sponsorship by weapon manufacturers for the Vietnam War.

In Australia, the role of the tobacco giant Philip Morris in funding acquisitions at the National Gallery Of Australia in Canberra were the subject of demonstrations by artists and the concerned public.

By and large Phillip Morris has won, despite occasional actions like the 1996 cancellation of their sponsorship of a San Diego Museum of Art exhibit. Their sponsorship has been seen as gilding the public image of a nefarious business, but it has gradually seeped into the arts ecology through the company’s persistence.

Transfield and the arts

The image of Transfield is quite different: visionary sponsorship of the startup Biennale by the Italian migrant and builder Franco Belgiorno-Nettis seemed a win-win for decades.

The Transfield Foundation does superb work funding, for example, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and many Indigenous programs. But big companies diversify, with Transfield entering a service industry that has been mired in opprobrium since the Howard years: running refugee detention centres.

American writer Clement Greenberg pointed out 75 years ago that artists rely upon on a bourgeois elite to which they have remained “attached by an umbilical chain of gold”.

This fact does not make the artist’s moral life any easier. Contesting the forms of that link, rubbing up against the ruling social dynamics and making disputatious artworks, continues to power art that is significant. The Biennale protesters have put some life back into an institution that, like much in Australia these days, had become too comfortable.

I do not doubt the Biennale will continue on without Transfield’s 6.1% fiscal contribution. I hope that the company will consider severing its ties with the detention industry to re-establish its moral standing. Most money supporting the arts may be “tainted” (as James Arvanitakis argued on The Conversation earlier this week), but the taint of being involved with the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres is too extreme to be tolerated.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, in stepping down, allowed the Board of the Biennale to make the right choice: excision to allow a process of healing.

The process won’t be smooth running, and one grimly awaits works dealing with the crisis of Manus Island by certain protesting artists who have chosen to remain within the Biennale. But those artists who withdrew should be saluted for raising their voices against a grotesque government policy, one that makes old-fashioned citizens like me ashamed to call myself Australian.


Further reading:
Luca Belgiorno-Nettis should just buy a yacht
The art of being awkward: Brandis is wrong about the Biennale
Is there any clean money left to fund the arts?
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?