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Crikey Says

Mar 10, 2014

Crikey says: the artists' boycott that could backfire

The Catholics are in the stand: Crikey is at the royal commission. The Chinese property invasion that isn't. And why Chinese steel could shape the Australian economy. The self-interested case from media on regulation. Slow progress to reform in Bangladesh's garment trade. Damien Kingsbury on the Russian chess game. And asking interns to pay for work.

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“This is bad for the arts, bad for art funding and bad for the artists.”

So says investor and philanthropist Mark Carnegie (in The Australian Financial Review) of the decision by the Biennale of Sydney to dump sponsorship partner Transfield Holdings after weeks of pressure and boycott threats from artists. It’s hard to disagree.

A group of vocal artists and activists got their victory on Friday when the Biennale severed its decades-old ties with the group, forcing Transfield boss Luca Belgiorno-Nettis out of the Biennale chairmanship. Why the fuss? Because Transfield Holdings has a 12% stake in Transfield Services, which won a contract to operate the Manus Island detention centre. In his statement, Belgiorno-Nettis noted:

“Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of ‘blood on your hands’. I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naive and offensive …”

Naive would certainly describe many campaigners, who are seemingly happy to exhibit work in exhibitions funded by governments that legislate offshore processing but not from the businesses legitimately contracted to carry it out. Not to mention the litany of other corporate backers with their own less-than-holy pursuits.

And as Carnegie notes, the arts community isn’t in a position to be picky with its benefactors. The Belgiorno-Nettis family are generous supporters of the arts; others will now think twice about putting their money on the table.

Artists had a much more powerful platform to protest: take the cash of the company they hate and inspire protest on the canvass. Instead they’ve hurt an important exhibition, set back an already poor culture of corporate philanthropy in Australia, and demonstrated the sort of righteous hypocrisy that damns the Left and so many of its causes.

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