Arts Boycotts: The Controversy over the Nineteenth Biennale of Sydney

Sarah Joseph

This year’s Biennale of Sydney, which ran from the 1stof March to the 9thof June, was rife with controversy even before it began. Artists announced that they would boycott the event in protest of the Biennale’s sponsorship deal with Transfield, a company involved in Australia’s notorious offshore detention camps for asylum-seekers. The relationship with Transfield was eventually severed, which brought most of the artists involved in the boycott back to the show. However, that action prompted a backlash from the Australian government and, possibly, corporate Australia.

Background: The Offshore Detention of Asylum-Seekers in Australia and the Biennale

Australia has long been plagued by a frenzied xenophobic debate over the “unauthorized” arrival of asylum-seekers by boat. Since 1992, successive Australian governments have adopted increasingly draconian measures to deter boat arrivals. Such measures are intentionally harsh in order to deter people, many of whom are fleeing atrocious forms of persecution in their home countries.

Since 2012, Australia has sent all marine-based arrivals of asylum seekers to detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island on Papua New Guinea (“PNG”), where their refugee status is determined (very slowly) under the laws of those respective countries. Australia pays vast sums of money to the respective countries to deal with the asylum-seeker “problem”. Since 2012, the infrastructure company, Transfield Services,1 has been contracted by the Australian government to run the detention camps in Nauru. It took over the management of the Manus Island camp in early 2014.

The Biennale of Sydney began in 1973 with the support of Franco Belgiorno-Nettis,2 a patron of the arts as well as the founder of Transfield. Fast-forward to 2014: Franco’s son Luca is the Chair of the Biennale, and Transfield has evolved into a network of linked companies including Transfield Services. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is an executive of Transfield Holdings,3 which was a sponsor of the Biennale. Transfield Holdings owns twelve percent of Transfield Services. Another Biennale sponsor was Transfield Foundation,4 the philanthropic arm of both Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services. Therefore, the Biennale had no direct links with Transfield Services, the company that runs the detention camps. However, it was set to benefit from the profits arising from those activities via the two related Transfield sponsors.

By March 2014, nine artists had withdrawn from the Biennale due to its links via Transfield to offshore detention.5 The Biennale eventually severed ties with the Transfield group, and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis stepped down as chair (though it is not clear whether the money that Transfield had already committed was used for the 2014 event).6 Most of the artists involved in the boycott joined the roster once again. The boycott attracted much criticism in Australia, for reasons discussed below.

Has Transfield Services Done Anything Wrong?

It is arguable that Transfield has in fact done anything wrong, as it has simply taken advantage of a lawful commercial opportunity. If so, the actions of the artists seem misguided.

However, it is fair to link Transfield to human rights abuses. Conditions in the offshore detention camps are terrible. Reportedly, half of the detainees have serious mental health problems.7 A riot in February 2014 on Manus Island led to the murder of an Iranian asylum-seeker, Reza Berati (before Transfield took over the site’s management).8 Clearly, the regime has entailed serious violations of international human rights law by Australia, as well as by Nauru and PNG. Transfield must bear the consequences of its decision to facilitate and make profits from such a system of arbitrary and cruel detention.

Hypocrisy by the Biennale?

The Biennale was criticised for perceived hypocrisy, as it continued to accept money from the Australian government.9 The government is clearly more responsible for the offshore detention policy than Transfield. However, public funding is not the same as private funding. Public money in Australia comes from the people, though the government in power temporarily controls its allocation. If one rejects public funding due to disapproval of certain government policies, one logically rejects any sort of welfare payment or assistance (such as education expenses) from that same government. In any case, public funding of the arts in Australia is controlled by the Australia Council, which operates “at arm’s length” from the government.10 It has no involvement in policies regarding asylum-seekers, unlike Transfield.

Pictures of the Campground at Cockatoo Island (Sydney, Australia) taken by Ahmet Ögüt. The Campground is a former industrial area, which was an Alcatraz-style prison for convicts, followed by a reformatory school and college for teenagers and orphans, later used as a major shipbuilding yard to construct submarines and warships for World War II. Today it is a campsite and is the main location of the Sydney Biennale.

The Reaction of the Australian Government

The Australian Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, accused the boycotting artists of “vicious ingratitude” in spurning the long-standing generosity of Transfield and the Belgiorno-Nettis family.11 However, Turnbull’s accusation neglects the quid pro quo involved in a sponsorship arrangement. In return for the money, the sponsor’s brand is boosted by its association with the arts. The sponsor also receives benefits such as free premium tickets for staff and clients. The Biennale Artists’ Working Group aptly responded that Turnbull’s statement was an unwarranted assumption of “a master-servant relationship” between sponsor and artist.12

George Brandis, the Australian Minister for the Arts, responded to the controversy in an even more dramatic fashion. He directed the Australia Council to deny future funding to any exhibition or performance which “unreasonably” refuses corporate sponsorship.13 Yet this intervention undermines the independence of the Australia Council.14

Private funding reduces reliance on government funding, so Brandis’s response could have been a justifiable attempt to save public money. However, the Biennale did not ask the government to make up for the Transfield shortfall. Certainly, the viability of an exhibition can be affected by a refusal of sponsorship dollars, and viability is a legitimate consideration in the allocation of public funds. Nevertheless, such considerations do not justify Brandis’s broadbrush assault on the freedom of conscience for artists.

It is true that no artist has a “right” to government funding. However, Brandis seems to have demanded a minimum level of apolitical behaviour by the many artists who depend on government funding. Many would agree that art best serves its purpose when it is opinionated and courageous, rather than craven and cowed.

Brandis’s directive also seems to create a “right” for corporations to associate their brands with artistic endeavours, regardless of the wishes of the artists involved. Commercial “rights” here are being favored over the countervailing rights of artists to exercise freedom of conscience to refuse sponsorship deals on ethical grounds. That latter freedom is severely compromised if government funding is withdrawn as a consequence of its exercise. The result may be, to paraphrase Malcolm Turnbull, “compulsory gratitude”.

Effectiveness of the Boycott

A criticism of the boycott is that it was ineffective. The action has not brought an end to Australia’s offshore detention regime, and Transfield has no apparent intention of terminating its contracts.

Some even argue that the boycott was counterproductive. For example, the future of the Biennale of Sydney and corporate sponsorship of the arts in Australia in general may be threatened.15 After all, many potential (and actual) arts sponsors have been linked to human rights abuses, given the range of activities of multinational companies. Furthermore, the slashing of the arts budget by the Australian government in May 201416 has meant that sponsorship dollars are even more necessary to ensure the viability of future exhibitions, with or without Brandis’s oppressive directive.

It is too early to tell whether there will be a sponsor backlash against the Biennale boycott. Actions have consequences, as Transfield has learnt with its decision to run the detention centers. The Biennale boycotters and organizers must also live with the consequences of their decisions.

In any case, an “effectiveness” criterion as a measure of the legitimacy of political action would cruel the opportunities for grassroots political action by those who lack substantial power. Political action cannot be the sole preserve of States and other powerful entities simply because their actions are more likely to be “effective” in bring about the changes they desire. Furthermore, while political action is a means to an end, it is also an end in itself, as an expression of conscience.

Boycotts may also be part of a long game: “effectiveness” cannot necessarily be measured in the immediate present or aftermath. Activists are now lobbying industry pension funds and other bodies to divest from Transfield.17 The Biennale incident could be the first step in an escalating campaign that eventually causes serious commercial harm to the company, alongside the undoubted harm to its reputation. Furthermore, the boycott seemed to have had some effect on the government, given Turnbull’s petulant reaction and Brandis’s efforts to ensure that there is no repeat. The action increased the national and international attention paid to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies, as well as associated corporate complicity.


From the turmoil that preceded the Biennale, art then took over from politics.18 The controversy certainly raised the profile of the Biennale, and probably resulted in more people flowing through its doors. Predictably, reviews were mixed.19

As for the boycott itself, such action is not new. The question of whether or not to boycott was faced by artists in Sydney, as well as artists at Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg.20 It is always a question of conscience for individuals and for collectives such as the Organising Committees of the Biennale of Sydney. For art cannot truly be separated from politics or conscience. Therefore, the apparent new policy of the Australian government to cleave them apart is misguided and indeed “anti-art”.