The protest group Generation Alpha yesterday “poisoned” an artwork at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. It was not affronted by the New York artist Cai Gou-Qiang’s Heritage, which features 99 life-sized, stuffed animals surrounding a pristine lake. No, its target was GOMA’s biggest corporate sponsor — Santos.

Generation Alpha claims Santos is “poisoning” the Pilliga Forest in north-western New South Wales where its coal seam gas project was found to have contaminated an aquifer with uranium at levels 20 times higher than safe drinking water guidelines. The Alpha protest saw a man dressed as a koala stand in front of the artwork, drink a cup of contaminated water and collapse and “die”. The protest was to highlight the belief that koalas are at risk from Santos’ activities and to illustrate GOMA’s acceptance of  Santos’ “dirty money”.

Yesterday’s Santos protest (and more are planned) comes soon after the giant Transfield group reluctantly withdrew its long-time support of the Biennale of Sydney because some of the artists participating in the event objected to the company’s involvement in running offshore asylum seeker detention camps.

Both companies are the kind of corporate citizens the federal government-backed Creative Partnerships Australia encourages to give to the arts. CPA was formed last year after the merger of the Australian Business Arts Foundation and the Australia Council’s Artsupport branch. Its job is to assist arts companies become more “sustainable” by sourcing funds from businesses and philanthropists who are attracted by the arts — and the tax deductions that come with their donations.

“It’s a very rare thing for a company to come and offer money to an arts company. It’s the other way around,” said CPA chief Fiona Menzies, succinctly summing up that sometimes marriage can be an unequal relationship.

Much of the discussion around the Transfield pull-out has been about how the actions of those 51 artists of the 91 in the Biennale might jeopardise the future of arts sponsorship — a claim the artists rejected yesterday in a wide-ranging statement — but Menzies admits it has become a concern for donors.

“I have had discussions with a large number of business people and philanthropists and they are expressing their concerns to me,” Menzies said. “I haven’t had anyone say ‘we will pull out our money’. It’s more that people are passionate about the arts and they are concerned a small group is jeopardising that.

“This talk of ‘dirty money’ is very simplistic. When you look at business organisations they have mostly good intentions.”

Menzies argues that as good corporate citizens, they support a healthy culture as it helps build a healthy society and by extension, a healthy economy. “I don’t think this is coming from a bad place,” she said. “Companies are made up of individuals and when I talk to the people who run the sponsorships they are very engaged, and they want to work very much in partnership.”

Given that CPA seems to be sitting in the eye of the storm between business and artists it’s surprising its CEO said she didn’t want to comment on the details of the Transfield retreat from the Biennale. “But I do think in general that while I respect the choice of individual artists, I do think it’s a shame for organisations to be pressured for a couple of reasons. One is that it affects other people who do not share their views; and two, I don’t think they’ll achieve what they want,” she said.

Menzies is not too concerned by Arts Minister George Brandis’ recent outburst that arts companies should not be able to “unreasonably” reject sponsor funds.

“I am not surprised by his comments given he has publicly said many times that he wants organisations to increase their private sector support. He wants arts organisations to be more sustainable and have more diverse sources of income,” she said.

How Brandis’ suggestion would work in reality is anyone’s guess. Menzies agrees that even if, for instance, Circus Oz rejected sponsorship from a condom manufacturer, it would be unlikely the family-friendly company would deal with Brandis’ censure. “Before a sponsorship agreement there’s a lot of discussion and a lot of thought to make sure both sides benefit.”

Old-fashioned common sense is a guide to any sponsorship. “If you are a really out there dance company and there are performances where people are naked, then you need to talk to the sponsors beforehand. But it also comes down to the appetite of a corporation for risk, and you have those discussions up front. Some (sponsors) will like to be seen as risk takers.”

Menzies’ views on this matter are not different to the Biennale 51 who said today that “common values are essential in the establishment of any new partnership between organisations and their sponsors”.

But if anything concrete can come from the recent sponsorship stoush, it’s that arts companies need to be clear-eyed about the sponsors they choose to get into bed with. Arts company boards need to formulate ethical guidelines to avoid the disaster that the 2014 Biennale has become.

Menzies says corporations have clear guides as to what they will, and will not, support and so why shouldn’t arts  formulate their own guidelines? “It’s perfectly reasonable for arts companies to have their own policies.”

*This article was originally published at Daily Review

Peter Fray

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