Sydney Biennale faces boycott over sponsorship controversy

An Australian academic has called for the boycott of the 2014 edition of Sydney’s Biennale over unethical corporate sponsorship.

Sydney-based design educator Matthew Kiem has called for a boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney, scheduled to begin on 21 March 2014, objecting to one of the Biennale’s sponsors, Transfield. The issue of contention is Transfield’s involvement in the running of Australian detention centres and asylum services on a for-profit basis.

NOT FOR REUSE. Philip Beesley, 'Hylozoic Series: Sibyl', 2012, installation view of the 18th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island. Photograph by Prudence Upton/Destination NSW. Image courtesy Biennale of Sydney.

Philip Beesley, ‘Hylozoic Series: Sibyl’, 2012, installation view of the 18th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island. Photograph by Prudence Upton/Destination NSW. Image courtesy Biennale of Sydney.

The call for a boycott

On 4 February 2014, Matthew Kiem, a PhD candidate and lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, published an open letter reacting to the fact that Transfield was one of the sponsors of the Biennale of Sydney.

In the letter, Kiem wrote that Transfield’s association with the Biennale “means that profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale” and therefore “the most appropriate response to this situation is to boycott the Biennale”. He added:

We are in a particularly strong position here given that our decisions could have the effect of redirecting a significant number of students, income, and kudos away from detention funded cultural events and towards other kinds of experiences and discussions.

The call for a boycott and concerns over Transfield’s involvement have been gathering traction on social media, opening up a much-needed discussion regarding the funding of arts and culture events.

Artist Van Thanh Rudd, who produced an artwork in 2012 to protest against Transfield’s sponsorship in the 18th Biennale of Sydney, and art writer Ruth Stilbeck, who has published in the area of art and refugee issues and is writing a book on arts sponsorship are among those in favour of a boycott. Van Thanh Rudd wrote on his website:

I hope the 2014 call to boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney sends a message to as many people as possible, in Australia and overseas, that Transfield must not get away with its profiteering on the misery of refugees, while claiming that it supports freedom of expression in the arts.

On 19 February 2014, a network of artists including Martin Boyce and Krisztina Erdei sent an open letter to the Biennale’s Board of Directors (pdf download), urging them to address these concerns and withdraw sponsorship links with Transfield. The letter acknowledges the efforts of the organisers and the difficult position they are in, but emphasises social responsibility and ethical awareness, stating that:

we will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, because it is ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights; and that, as a network of artists, arts workers and a leading cultural organisation, we do not want to be associated with these practices.

RISE, a not-for-profit association working for refugee and asylum seeker welfare, has also come out in support of a complete boycott of the Biennale.

NOT FOR REUSE. Krisztina Erdei, 'Ordinary Exclusions, 2009, Ozd Hungary', 2009, photograph, 50 x 70 cm, for the 19th Biennale of Sydney 2014. Image courtesy the artist, Godot Galéria, Budapest and the Biennale of Sydney.

Krisztina Erdei, ‘Ordinary Exclusions, 2009, Ozd Hungary’, 2009, photograph, 50 x 70 cm, for the 19th Biennale of Sydney 2014. Image courtesy the artist, Godot Galéria, Budapest and the Biennale of Sydney.

The Biennale’s response

The Biennale of Sydney, in a statement to The Guardian, said:

Many of us at the Biennale hold strong views on the refugee issue. We would not knowingly associate with the abuse of a disadvantaged group like the refugees. We believe that any action to hinder the Biennale would damage the ability of 94 artists to exhibit their work and gain exposure for their talent. That would be regrettable.

Previously, the Biennale tweeted on 6 February 2014 that “objectors only deny the legitimate voice of BOS artists”.

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The Biennale’s artistic director Juliana Engberg told the Sydney Morning Herald that she is sympathetic to the protestors, but the Biennale would not be disassociating its links with Transfield, which has been associated with the Sydney Biennale since 1973.

In a statement on their website on 14 February 2014, Transfield quoted Luca Belgiorno-Nettis Executive Director of Transfield Holdings and Chairman of the Biennale of Sydney and a Trustee of the Transfield Foundation, as saying:

Many Australians struggle with the problems of managing the transit of refugees to this country; this is a global challenge. The Biennale of Sydney acts as an artistic platform for dialogue around issues such as this.

The need for conversation

The controversy surrounding Transfield’s involvement in the Biennale of Sydney is an opportunity to open up a wider discussion and raise social awareness about issues such as the sources of funding for major art events. Antony Loewenstein writes in The Guardian that:

How the Biennale and related events are funded should be key public questions, especially in an age where far too many companies want to mask their dirty profit-making with shiny, artistic treats. It is our responsibility to demand better.

The College of Fine Art in Sydney organised an event on 17 February 2014 addressing the issue. According to its Facebook page, the event was intended to be an “open discussion on how artists and activists can protest against Transfield’s sponsorship of the 2014 Sydney Biennale.” Participants discussed ideas such as an alternative press package for the Biennale addressing economic flows and sponsorship links, an artist newspaper, alternative artworks during the Biennale depicting life in detention centres, and the possibility of an alternative biennale in 2016.

Kriti Bajaj

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Related Topics: biennales, art and the community, events in Sydney

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