Artists Will Pay For Rejecting Corporate Funds


Since forcing the Sydney Biennale Festival to drop Transfield Services as the event’s major sponsor, artists associated with the event have been lashed with criticism by two of the Federal Government’s most senior ministers.

Malcolm Turnbull attacked what he called the “vicious ingratitude” of artists who refused to have their work associated with a corporate identity currently managing offshore detention centres on Nauru and on Manus Island, describing the Belgiorno-Nettis family, owners of Transfield, as modern day Medicis.

Arts Minister and Attorney-General George Brandis took things a step further, warning the move could undermine the rationale for government funding to the festival and saying it sent the wrong message to the corporate world.

Turnbull and Brandis’ anger at these artists is driven by philosophy, not pragmatism. The ministers are not afraid that funding to the arts will be lost altogether without the support of the corporate world, and it seems unlikely that the slight to the Belgiorno-Nettis family alone could have put them in such a furore.

What they are really angry about is the rejection of a philosophy that places the corporation above all else, a philosophy that puts arts funding ahead of the arts, as if the painting only exists to give meaning to the canvas. The protest is not just a rejection of Transfield Services — it is a rejection, by the art world, of a core Liber­­­al belief. To Turnbull and Brandis that is an unacceptable, unforgivable rejection.

The responses of both ministers also reveal a deeply flawed understanding of corporate social responsibility in the 21st Century, one that the actions of their own party subtly acknowledges.

The Liberal Party ceased taking donations from tobacco companies during the 2013 election, with then opposition leader Tony Abbott quick to stress the move had nothing to do with a policy shift against big tobacco. It was done, he stated, because “it was the right thing for the nation”. 

Abbott was not publicly attacking tobacco producers, nor was he defaming the ancestral family name of Philip Morris. He was simply and clearly stating that a political party should not take donations from a large corporation with a net negative impact on Australian society. Nonetheless, Brandis today refused to rule out penalties for arts festivals and companies that refuse tobacco sponsorship.

The artists exhibiting at the Biennale have all the more reason to be cautious of their corporate ties. To them, this is not a job or a contract; this is a matter of self-expression. The Rabbitohs may have no qualms about wearing sponsorship for a casino where a former half-back poured out most of his earnings, but an artist who produces deeply personal work has every right to not associate their name and work with a corporate entity that does not represent their values.

But the message from Turnbull and Brandis to the art world is clear: take what you can, when you can, and be grateful.

The ministers’ views presuppose that corporate funding to the arts is a purely philanthropic venture, that the corporate world gets nothing in return save a good feeling and first pickings on lobby sculptures.

In truth, philanthropy and the corporation could not be more opposed to each other. Corporations must always act in the interests of their shareholders; any financial speculation, be it the acquisition of a competitor or the sponsorship of an arts festival, must be done with the final goal of benefiting the company and its shareholders.

James Packer doesn’t sponsor South Sydney because he loves rugby league. His team made a calculated decision that aligning their brand with the Bunnies would deliver the maximum return for their outlay. The relationship is mutually beneficial for both brands. Why would arts funding be different from any other corporate sponsorship?

And why should the sponsored artist have no control over his corporate partners? It is true that the corporate world is a crucial revenue stream for the Arts in Australia. 2010 alone saw corporate sponsorship contribute over $98 million.

Facing the realisation that funding to the arts will likely face hardship when the Liberals deliver their first budget, Turnbull and Brandis’ criticisms are more than a rebuke. They are a warning that the rejection of their pro-corporate politics — not to mention their party’s policy of deterrence by offshore detention — will cost the arts community more than Transfield’s support.

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