Artists threaten to boycott Biennale of Sydney
The exhibition’s main sponsor is contracted to provide service to the government’s controversial detention centres for asylum seekers
By Elizabeth Fortescue. Web only
Published online: 21 February 2014
The Biennale of Sydney has been forced into crisis mode just weeks ahead of its 21 March opening, as local and international artists threaten to pull out of the event or embed protest statements within their Biennale art works.
On Thursday 19 February, 35 of the 90 Biennale artists submitted a letter to the board, citing their moral abhorrence that a major sponsor of the event, the Sydney-based company Transfield, is earning profits from the Australian Government’s controversial policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers. The signatories, which include the Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Boyce along with other international and Australian artists, have asked the board to drop Transfield as a sponsor and find new backers.
Transfield is contracted to the government to provide garrison support, security and welfare services to Manus and Nauru islands in Papua New Guinea, where those seeking asylum in Australia are sent to be detained and processed.
Earlier this week, violence on Manus Island resulted in one man’s death and many other serious injuries, sparking fresh claims that the Australian Government’s mandatory detention policy is an abuse of human rights and a breach of international law.
Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who chairs the Biennale of Sydney, is an executive of Transfield. His father Franco Belgiorno-Nettis was a founder of the Biennale in 1973 and Transfield has been intricately linked with the event ever since. Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, Luca’s brother, is president of trustees at the Art Gallery of NSW, which is a major venue for the Biennale.
The current crisis at the Biennale began on 4 February, when the Sydney-based academic Matthew Kiem called for a general boycott of the event. This followed Transfield’s announcement that it was extending its involvement with the mandatory detention centres by taking over welfare services, including education, which were previously supplied by the Salvation Army. Critics claimed that Transfield was not qualified to provide such services.
Update: The Biennale board met today and has released a statement, saying it would stand by its sponsor. “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,” the statement says. “It is this board’s duty to act in the interests of the Biennale and all its stakeholders—our audiences, government partners, staff, benefactors and sponsors, along with all Biennale artists and the broader arts sector. 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.”
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