In the face of the global threat of climate change, should arts organizations take money from the companies that are part of the problem?
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By Jo Caust
The Perth arts organization ARTRAGE, which runs the annual Fringe World festival, announced last week that it had accepted ongoing funding from the mining company Woodside Petroleum.
Local artists have long protested Woodside’s position as a sponsor of Fringe World’s naming rights. In response, the festival introduces a contractual clause the artists claimed it was an effective “order of silence” to prevent them from protesting the arrangement.
When this naming rights partnership ended earlier this month, activists celebrated it as a victory. But they now believe it was little more than a symbolic victory.
Speaking of the reworked sponsorship deal, the CEO of ARTRAGE Sharon Burgess said:
we are delighted to embark on a new phase of the partnership […] ARTRAGE is not intended to make political statements or take a position on the subject; we’ll leave that to our artists.
From this statement, it appears that artists are now being asked to protest the funding deals. But it’s a no-win situation for artists. If they participate in an event paid for by the mining company, they act as collaborators. If they refuse to participate, they cannot show their work.
It’s a much bigger question than a festival and a sponsor. With climate change as a global global threat, should arts organizations take money from the companies that are part of the problem?
Throwing good money after bad?
Everyone in the arts is always strapped for cash, and corporate sponsorship is often a big part of a company’s revenue mix. This money allows them to pay artists, reach a wider audience and continue to create new works.
For businesses, arts sponsorship is used to generate positive publicity. Companies want to show that they are generous and socially responsible. Their profile is valued by the association.
Not surprisingly, fossil fuel companies around the world are eager to support artistic and cultural activities. By providing this support, they can come across as part of the solution, rather than the creator of the problem.
Earlier this month there was a two day event at the Science Museum in London against Shell sponsorship of an exhibition entitled Our Future Planet, devoted to solutions to climate change. Museum director Ian Blatchford defended the sponsorship, saying Shell is helping “find solutions” through its engagement with the museum.
Similar protests have taken place across the UK in recent years in connection with BP’s cultural support. the Tate Museum, the Shakespeare’s Royal Company and the Edinburgh Festival all determined that they would no longer accept BP funding.
The most infamous recent case in Australia remains the 2014 protests against the relationship between the Sydney and Transfield Biennale. At the time, Transfield was hired to manage the offshore detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island.
After the protests, the festival severed ties with its sponsor.
In March of the same year, Malcolm Turnbull (then Minister of Communications) called the artists “viciously ungrateful“, And George Brandis (then Minister of the Arts) asked the Australian Council develop a policy asserting that arts organizations could “not unreasonably deny funding from the private sector” on political grounds.
Brandis then withdrew $ 105 million from the Council in 2015.
Whose party is this?
There are many examples in Australia of arts organizations accepting sponsorship from mining companies.
BHP is Tarnanthi’s main sponsor at the Art Gallery of South Australia, a major festival of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Rio Tinto was the primary sponsor of a six-year project with Western Australian Art Gallery, Desert River Sea: Kimberley Art Then & Now.
But mining companies have negatively impacted traditional lands of many First Nations groups around the world, as well as important Indigenous cultural sites, such as the destruction of Juukan Gorge last year.
Does Sponsorship of an Indigenous Art Exhibition Ease Guilt?
Faced with the continued reduction in government contributions to the arts, Australian arts organizations have come under enormous pressure to attract both corporate sponsorship and private donations.
But there are many ethical dilemmas in accepting sponsorship. Being pragmatic – and accepting the money for immediate benefit – may not be wise in the long run. The brand of the artistic organization could therefore be associate with the sponsor, which can cause long-term damage to the arts organization – especially where there is a belief (founded or not) that the sponsor may compromise integrity artistic organization.
The sponsorship size can also often be relatively small compared to the overall cost of setting up the event. The price to pay for turning off performers and audiences can be a bad deal.
Tobacco companies were once also big artistic sponsors in Australia. When this sponsorship was banned as part of Australia’s tobacco control campaign, it was replaced by a tobacco tax used to purchase public health advertising space in programs or on signage of impacted sporting and cultural events.
It is possible to be sympathetic to the conundrum in which arts organizations find themselves: mining companies are among the richest in Australia and therefore are among the most likely to sponsor arts festivals and other arts activities.
Maybe we should take the money and run away, and see it as a fair trade. But no one should imagine that the gift is free.