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Artists Call for Boycott of Sydney Biennale Over Sponsorship

Protesters in Melbourne rallying against the Australian government's mandatory detention policy (photo by Flick user Takver)
Protesters in Melbourne rallying against the Australian government’s mandatory detention policy (photo by Flick user Takver)

A group of artists have threatened to boycott the Biennale of Sydney in protest of one of the exhibition’s major sponsors, a company called Transfield, which contracts with the Australian government to manage mandatory detention centers for asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

The call for action began with a February 4 open letter by Matt Kiem, a Sydney-based academic and self-described “design educator,” on the blog Crossborder Operational Matters. Kiem laid out the situation:

The 19th Biennale of Sydney is sponsored by Transfield, a company contracted to run Australian detention centres, which they do on a for-profit basis. Transfield Services Ltd recently announced plans to take on further work at the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres.

This means that profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale.

Clearly, the most appropriate response to this situation is to boycott the Biennale.

His cause quickly gained supporters, and, two weeks later, 28 of the 90 artists participating in the biennale — including Turner Prize winner Martin Boyce — wrote and published another open letter, this one addressed to the organization’s board of directors. In it, the artists write:

[W]e regard our role in the Biennale, under the current sponsorship arrangements, as adding value to the Transfield brand. Participation is an active endorsement, providing cultural capital for Transfield.

In light of all this, we ask the Board: what will you do? We urge you to act in the interests of asylum seekers. As part of this we request the Biennale withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.

An artwork in the 2012 Biennale of Sydney (photo by Michelle Sparks, via Flickr) (click to enlarge)
An artwork in the 2012 Biennale of Sydney (photo by Michelle Sparks, via Flickr) (click to enlarge)

But Transfield is not a new sponsor of the Biennale; rather, the company has been inextricably tied to the the show since the latter’s inception. Transfield founder Franco Belgiorno-Nettis helped create the biennale in 1973, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, while his son Franco is currently both a Transfield executive and the chair of the biennale. Another son, Guido, is the president of trustees at the Art Gallery of NSW, a major biennale venue, the Art Newspaper adds.

The current focus on Transfield seems to have been sparked in part by the recent expansion of Transfield’s contract with the Australian government. In a comprehensive blog post for Frieze magazine, writer Helen Hughes explains:

The Australian government’s approach to asylum seeker policy, which includes the offshore processing of those who arrive through ‘unofficial channels’, is widely regarded as draconian. A bipartisan reality, it has been condemned as contravening national obligations as laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as a variety of international human rights laws. In addition, Transfield recently won a contract from the Australian government to take over the management of garrison and welfare services in these detention centres, meaning that the one company manages detainees’ housing, security, transport, catering, cleaning, psychological and medical support. (Note that many detainees become psychologically disturbed and even suicidal during their confinement in such detention centres.)

Hughes also cites “a new secrecy-pact presided over by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison that makes attempted arrivals by boat completely invisible to the Australian public by concealing such news items from the media” as a catalyst, and widely reported riots at the centers in recent weeks, which resulted in one death and 77 people injured, may have contributed as well.

The Biennale board responded to the protesters today, with a statement saying it would not sever ties with Transfield. “We unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family — and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale — must override claims over which there is ambiguity,” they wrote. “On the one hand, there are assertions and allegations that are open to debate. On the other, we have a long-term history of selfless philanthropy, which has been the foundation of an event that has served the arts and wider community for the past 40 years.”

The statement also includes a fairly stark presentation of the financial realities of the biennale (and so many other arts organizations): “The only certainty is that without our founding partner, the Biennale will no longer exist,” the statement said. Writer Fiona Gruber mused on this complicated nexus of art and money in a piece on the boycott for the Sydney Morning Herald:

The furore highlights a topic infrequently discussed in Australia, although a much hotter issue overseas: while most sponsors and philanthropists are untarnished by controversy, for those that are, how ethical can cash-strapped organisations and generally low-income artists afford to be?

Gruber ends her piece on a fairly conciliatory note, which seems to be precisely what Transfield is banking on. In the company’s statement released in response to the controversy, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis had this to say:

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 19th Biennale of Sydney, titled “You Imagine What You Desire,” is set to open on March 21.

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