Artists, activists, and members of the public are calling for a boycott of the Sydney Biennale after the parent company of the art festival’s major sponsor announced it would be managing welfare services for overseas detention centres.
The Biennale’s main sponsor is the Transfield Foundation, a joint philanthropic venture between Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services, which was spun off as a separate company in 2001. Transfield Holdings executive director Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is also the Biennale chairman, though he has maintained a relatively low profile in that role.
Earlier this month Transfield Services took up operating the welfare services of detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island, after the contract of the previous provider, the Salvation Army, ran out at the end of January.
That confluence has angered a number of artists and activists, as well as members of the public. The Melbourne-based Beyond Borders Collective released a video condemning the company and encouraging a boycott.
“A boycott is a clear message that [Transfield] cannot do both. They cannot continue to use the Biennale to culture-wash or make amends for their involvement in mandatory detention,” it was said in the film.
On Wednesday, 28 artists released an open letter to the Biennale, calling for it to cease sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek new funding.
“We expect the Biennale to acknowledge the voice of its audience and the artist community that is calling on the institution to act powerfully and immediately for justice,” the letter said, which is viewable in full at artsHub.
On its official Twitter account, the Biennale said the festival brings attention to the ideas and issues of our times, and that “objectors only deny the legitimate voice of BOS artists”. Biennale organisers declined to comment for this article.
Mr Belgiorno-Nettis released a statement online in which he recognised the global challenge of transiting refugees.
“The Biennale of Sydney acts as an artistic platform for dialogue around issues such as this,” he said.
David Jamieson, group general manager of media and communications at Transfield Services, said that it was not appropriate for the company to debate the issue.
“Offshore processing has now been the policy of two successive elected governments. We’ve stepped up to the responsibility of looking after people on Nauru and Manus, a responsibility which we take extremely seriously,” he said.
“We believe people have a democratic right to protest, and Transfield Services is aware of their concerns.”
The City of Sydney is the second-largest sponsor of the Biennale after Transfield. And it has a second relationship with Mr Belgiorno-Nettis, who is also the founder of newDemocracy, a social foundation which aims to enhance public debate.
NewDemocracy was appointed by the City to administer a ‘citizens jury’ on the safety and amenity of Sydney’s nightlife. The jury comprises 43 people, mapped to the census, and is meeting over five weekends to compile recommendations that will be tabled by Premier Barry O’Farrell in parliament.
The City and the state government are each contributing $60,000 to fund the project. The Lord Mayor declined to answer questions at this time.
The Biennale is set to take place from March 21 to June 9 in venues across Sydney.
With Michael Koziol