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Sydney Biennale Cuts Ties with Transfield as Chairman Resigns (UPDATED)

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 7, 2014

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis giving a talk at TEDxSydney (screenshot via YouTubre)

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis giving a talk at TEDxSydney in 2012. (screenshot via YouTube)

The Biennale of Sydney will end its relationship with major sponsor Transfield Holdings, and Biennale Chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis has resigned, the Guardian reports. The moves come in response to a growing boycott of the exhibition over its link with Transfield.

“We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately,” the board said in a statement. They go on to “reluctantly accept” Belgiorno-Nettis’s resignation, adding, “We gratefully acknowledge the personal contribution of Luca as chair over the past 14 years. We also acknowledge the enormous contribution of the Belgiorno-Nettis family over 41 years.” The board had previously stated that “without our founding partner, the Biennale will no longer exist,” so its future post-Transfield is unclear.

Until his resignation, Belgiorno-Nettis served as the chairman of both the Biennale and Transfield Holdings, a private company that has supported the art exhibition since its founding. As explained in a statement earlier this week, Transfield Holdings floated Transfield Services on the Australian stock market in 2001 and now owns only a 12% share. Transfield Services is the public company that manages mandatory detention centers for asylum seekers; it won a $1.2 billion contract to run the center on Manus Island last week.

In his own statement regarding the resignation, Belgiorno-Nettis strikes a pious tone. “With many of the participating artists now torn between loyalty to our creative director and wanting to make a stand against this government policy, the core spirit of the festival is under a dark cloud,” he said, continuing:

There would appear to be little room for sensible dialogue, let alone deliberation. Yesterday I learnt that some international government agencies are beginning to question the decision of the Biennale’s board to stand by Transfield. Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of ‘blood on your hands’. I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naïve and offensive. This situation is entirely unfair – especially when directed towards our dedicated Biennale team who give so much of themselves.

I have tendered my resignation from the Biennale board in the hope that some blue sky may open up over this 19th Biennale of Sydney.

Although the boycott’s aims have now been achieved, some artists have expressed reserved enthusiasm. ”Obviously this seems to be a positive development but we need to talk together to see what our next response will be,” artist Olafur Olafsson told the Sydney Morning Herald. “This was a reaction to a political situation that’s still ongoing. And re-entering the Biennale would deny all of that mess, and that mess is still happening,” said Gabrielle de Vietri, in the Guardian.

The political mess is, indeed, still happening. An article in TIME this morning declares, “Australia Will Keep Detaining Refugees Indefinitely, Whatever the World Thinks,” and goes on to discuss the government’s stated reasons for the mandatory detention policy, the terrible conditions at some of the detention centers, and the legal black hole that many asylum seekers fall into as they’re kept there for years. Despite protests from artists and criticism from humanitarian organizations and the UN, some 60% of Australians want the government to “increase the severity” of its asylum-seeker policies, the article reports, based on a recent poll.

The 19th Biennale of Sydney, titled You Imagine What You Desire, opens on March 21.

UPDATE, Saturday, March 8: Hyperallergic reached out to artist Ahmet Ögüt about his participation in the Biennale of Sydney and he provided the following response about the latest development:

“I see the Biennale of Sydney’s decision to cut all ties with Transfield as a very positive development for the future of the Biennial and the role of Biennial’s in general. I decided to return and participate in the Biennial, since our demand from the Biennial stated in our withdrawal letter was fulfilled. I acknowledge that this process is not easy for the Biennial team; I have donated my artist fee to the Biennial as a sign of appreciation of art workers’ hard work. I think it is time to join forces together as one voice; for all artists, curators, art workers and cultural producers to create new constructive opportunities, develop further debates, and continue to be in support of the human rights of asylum seekers.”

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