Controversy Strikes Australian Arts Funding

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March 14, 2014; The Guardian

The Australian artists who took a stand that led to the withdrawal of one of the financial supporters from the 2014 Sydney Biennale have stirred up controversy that goes to the heart of arts funding in Australia. The Australian government minister with responsibility over the arts has responded with a threat to the long-established principle that government and politicians keep an arm’s-length away from arts funding.

The Minister, Senator George Brandis, has written to the Australia Council (similar to the National Endowment for the Arts) asking it to consider withdrawing funding from any artists who refused private corporate support. It has been a long established principle that the Minister does not get directly involved in the Council’s funding decisions. The Australia Council Act states that the Minister must not “give a direction to the Council in relation to the making of a decision by the Council in a particular case, being a decision relating to the making of a grant.”

Senator Brandis responded to that by saying, “What I have in fact asked the Australia Council to do is to develop a policy so that it would be a condition of the receipt of Australia Council funding that the arts organisation concerned not unreasonably refuse or unreasonably terminate private sponsorship.” When pressed on who would be responsible for deciding what is to be considered “unreasonable,” Brandis replied, “I don’t frankly have a fixed or dogmatic view about whether it should be the Australia Council or whether it should be the Minister or whether it should be some third party arbiter.”

We can only hope that the option adopted is not the current Minister. Brandis has since said that while it was reasonable for arts companies or festivals to reject corporate funding if they had concerns about a sponsor’s financial credentials, it was unreasonable for them to refuse sponsorship on political grounds. And when questioned whether it was appropriate for an organization to refuse sponsorship from a tobacco company, Brandis replied, “I don’t think that arts companies should reject bona fide sponsorship from commercially sound, prospective partners.”

Brandis here may be showing his lack of understanding of different types of private funding of the arts. Sponsorship, for example, is something quite different from philanthropy. Both are forms of private funding of the arts. In fact, tobacco sponsorship has been prohibited in Australia since the 1990s.

The objection at the heart of this controversy had been to the primarily philanthropic support of the Sydney Biennale by the Belgiorno-Nettis private family company, Transfield Holdings. The family had been closely involved in the founding of the Sydney Biennale. The Belgiorno-Nettis family is amongst the largest providers of philanthropy for the arts in Australia. The family company holds 11 percent of the shares in a public company the family founded then sold, now called Transfield Services. Transfield Services is involved in the Australian government’s controversial asylum seeker campus. The family are not represented on the board or the management of Transfield services.

The Australian government has created another organisation, Creative Partnerships Australia, to encourage private sector support for the arts. Sen. Brandis is also the Minister responsible for Creative Partnerships Australia. On the Creative Partnerships Australia website, he is quoted as saying one of his key priorities as Arts Minister is to grow funding and other support for the arts from the private sector. Private sector support for the arts in Australia currently amounts to about 10 percent of total arts funding and comes, according to this website, from business partnerships (including sponsorships), social investment, and philanthropy.

In one respect, then, it could be argued he is doing his job. By taking away the rights of artists to refuse funding from the private sector, logically the amount of available funding will grow. However, this ignores whether the reputation or image of the source of funding is consistent with the artists’ values or messages.

It seems that the Minister misunderstands the arts and artists that he is responsible for. Isn’t a primary role of the arts in society to challenge orthodoxy and provoke debate? In order to be successful in this, the arts sector needs to be free and independent. This surely was the thinking behind the Australia Council Act. And doesn’t this freedom and independence for artists encompass their choice of partners and sponsors? Isn’t that what we want in a free and democratic society?—John Godfrey


  • Scott Redford

    Of course Brandis is ‘sabre rattling’ for right wing votes in a time of unprecedented bad polling for an incoming Government. BUT we must also factor in the amount of self censorship the arts exhibit already. From my 30 years of involvement with fine arts ( at rather high levels) I would say the fine arts are already cowed by government anyway. I mean as more and more art museums become upper middle class baby crèches topics such as sex are almost taboo. The so called political art fostered by such museums and museum ‘professionals’ is the most accepted kind. None of it makes waves ( maybe Bill Henson) and it’s designed like that. That is what makes the Biennale 9 so exceptional. A small group of individuals caused a major problem for the cozy and lazy Australian art world. Even the Federal Minister and other senior ministers got involved. In PR terms these artists are geniuses!

    But John Godfrey is very correct. What type of art does Brandis want? Already Australian art is virtually unknown internationally. Amusingly this stouch has given the Biennale of Sydney and Australian contemporary art an international profile we would find impossible to gain before. As one writer already said, the Biennale is already a hit! Huge audiences are ensured. Murder always bestows a certain mystique on things hey? And State sanctioned murder is even better. All those coward artists that stayed in the Biennale will no doubt gain big time. Cretins!

    And finally we need to own up to why exactly Australian art is disregarded overseas. It just has no reason for being. Australian contemporary art just sends international art product overseas to centres which have already so much art, it’s like selling ice to Eskimos. What the international art world craves is nit more product, what they want is new ideas. Australia is sacred of this and still attempts to make art stars somehow but it ain’t workin baby…not at all.

  • Kate Delaney

    I agree that an artist has the right to refuse funding inconsistent with his/her values. However, there is another take on this – (1) if the objection to Transfield related funding is their involvement in implementing asylum seeker policy (Manus Island) then they should refuse all Australian Government funding; (2) the public should not be expected to fund artists that refuse philanthropic funding through Government revenue (taxes) when there is insufficient funding to meet public demand for government services (as is the case). The Government always has eligibility criteria for funding (grants etc.) why can’t availability of private funding be one?