The 2014 Biennale of Sydney will go on despite its decision to end a 40-year relationship with founding partner, Transfield Holdings late last week. However, with Transfield playing a meaningful financial role in what has grown to be the largest art event in Australia, the decision may have significant sway on the continuation of the festival in future years. A number of the artists involved with this year’s event threatened to pack up, pull out and boycott the Biennale, when light was thrown upon Transfield’s association with Australian detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
The artists’ boycott was staged in the hope of having an effect on the government’s mandatory detention policy, with Transfield profiting from the policy and the Biennale then receiving those profits. Criticism of the policy from a human-rights perspective was very recently set ablaze following the death of Reza Berati, an asylum seeker detained at the Manus Island facility, in February. Other major sponsors of the Biennale include the Australia Council, which has been a supporter since 1976 and is entirely funded by the Australian Government.
Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, executive director of Transfield Holdings and former head of the Sydney Biennale, submitted his resignation after the success of the artists’ protest. He told ABC Radio National, “It was my choice because I could see that there was this wave of momentum of voices that were continuing to infiltrate and poison the artists ... Nobody can now say the Biennale is compromised.”
The issue has highlighted the delicate relationship that exists between art and philanthropy – arguably a dependent relationship, with one relying on the other to thrive, flourish and develop. The art world requires private funding and patronage, but is fundamentally concerned with freedom of expression. Aligning sponsors with artists, artwork and art events can be a difficult balancing exercise, where company vision needs to meet artistic vision. And this becomes a tricky responsibility when considering big corporates. Transfield Holding’s link to the operation of some detention centres was through a subsidiary company, of which it is only a minor stakeholder. Scrutiny should be applied to any sponsorship alignment, and artistic voice should not be compromised for the sake of capital. This is, however a sad blow to private patronage at a time when public funding might be less concerned with bolstering the arts.