Arts funding debate ponders colour of money from corporate sponsors

Ben Pennings from Generation Alpha protesting about Santos sponsorship of GOMA. Picture:
Ben Pennings from Generation Alpha protesting about Santos sponsorship of GOMA. Picture: Steve Pohlner
Coal-seam gas protesters dressed as zombies at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. Picture:
Coal-seam gas protesters dressed as zombies at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. Picture: Darren England
A Liberate Tate performance at Tate Britain protesting against sponsor BP’s involvement i
A Liberate Tate performance at Tate Britain protesting against sponsor BP’s involvement in the Gulf of Mexico spill. Picture: Amy Scaife
Demonstrators at Tate Britain angry at BP and Shell sponsorship. Picture: Alamy
Demonstrators at Tate Britain angry at BP and Shell sponsorship. Picture: Alamy
EARLY last month, London’s British Museum opened a new exhibitio, Vikings: Life and Legend, in the biggest show of its kind in 30 years. More than 50,000 visitors have so far flocked to the museum’s new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery to view items ranging from fighting axes, amulets and dragon figureheads, to skeletons, old coins and an imposing 37m-long Viking timber warship. Already the third most successful show in the museum’s history in terms of pre-opening ticket sales, it has been sold out every day since its opening in the first week of March.

“Temporary exhibitions of this nature are only possible thanks to external support,” British Museum director Neil MacGregor said last month. “So I am hugely grateful to BP for their longstanding and ongoing commitment to the British Museum.” Oil giant BP, in turn, said it was “extremely pleased” to support the show, the first exhibition of a new five-year partnership between it and the museum.

Not everyone has been as warmly appreciative of this partnership. During the past few years, a burgeoning coalition of British activists united under the banner “art not oil” has targeted BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum. The Tate Galleries, whose undisclosed deal with BP expires in 2016, is another British cultural symbol to have come in for sustained attack, with besieged Tate director Nicholas Serota facing everything from an 8000-strong petition, member resignations, letter campaigns and, just last week, an adverse ruling against the Tate for breaching British Freedom of Information laws in its dealings with protesters. (Triumphant activist Kevin Smith from British oil industry watchdog Platform tells Review it is the culmination of a two-year legal battle with the institution.) British artist Peter McDonnell, a member of activist group Liberate Tate, is one of many who believes the cultural sector should not be giving social legitimacy to any big oil corporation by accepting sponsorship; it is essentially “blood money” to buy public goodwill and whitewash destructive environmental practices. Rolling protests will continue until all ties are severed, McDonnell tells Review from London. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if something happens during the Vikings exhibition.”

Britain’s ethical funding of the arts movement has been mobilising for years against what participants see as the “alarming” incursion of the fossil fuel industry, in particular, into the British cultural sector. Appalled by what they see as the stain this leaves on Britain’s “cultural patrimony”, activists have pursued their commercial prey by drawing on a rich and creative arsenal: unsanctioned choral “flash mobs” by the so-called “Shell Out Sounds” choir; delivering a 16.5m wind turbine blade inside the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall; 50 veiled performers chanting facts about carbon emissions; oil, feathers and five tonnes of molasses being dumped on Tate grounds; mock Shakespeare performances; guerilla theatre “interventions”; and performances such as a naked woman covered in oil on the floor of the Tate.

In February, activists say they claimed the scalp of Royal Dutch Shell, which has ended its sponsorship after eight years of Southbank Centre’s classical music series. The venue’s 2014-15 classical season will no longer include a series sponsored by the oil giant.

Other claimed successes include forcing the 2008 withdrawal of Shell as a sponsor of the National History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, and severing Italian arms dealer Finmeccanica’s ties with the National Gallery in 2012.

McDonnell and his compatriots have been observing keenly as the Australian arts sector grapples with its own ethical funding protests. The first was the recent boycott at the Sydney Biennale by artists protesting against the sponsorship by Transfield Holdings — a minority shareholder in Transfield Services, which fulfills a government security contract for Australia’s offshore detention centre on Manus Island. The second was a smaller but equally passionate protest by anti-fracking activists Generation Alpha who targeted coal-seam gas company Santos’s sponsorship of a major show by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art. That protest featured stunts involving a fake dead koala and the “poisoning” of a key artwork with a vial of “murky, stinky” water from a uranium-polluted aquifer in northwestern NSW’s Pilliga forest. (Santos was fined $1500 in February for causing a proven case of contamination.)

Generation Alpha activist Ben Pennings echoed the sentiments of his British counterparts when he called for the gallery to forsake all “tainted” funds from the CSG operator. The gallery, which says it is in “ongoing and positive” dialogue unrelated to the protests as to the future of its $1.5 million, five-year Santos deal after it expires next year, has strongly maintained support for its sponsor, while Santos has come out firing.

Says Santos spokesman Brad Burke: “Dishonest and misleading claims made by extremists about our operations will have no impact on support we provide for the benefit of the mainstream community in Queensland.”

To some alarmed Australian arts observers, these two protests potentially signal the emergence of a British-style form of activism that will strike at the heart of commercial arrangements painstakingly wrought over years between the arts sector, big business and private donors. Local protesters have made links with the British groups. “We’ve been in touch with some of the artists and organisations who were involved with the Bien­nale boycott and also put out a statement of support,” McDonnell says. “We’ve also been chatting to the Generation Alpha folks and are really supportive of the interventions they have been making.”

Generation Alpha’s Pennings is an unabashed fan of his British counterparts’ tactics and says they are inspiring local activists.

“We have witnessed the success in the UK, and we are seeing an ongoing increase in activism in Australia aimed at resource companies,” he says. “Resource companies use arts sponsorship to gain community acceptability, to seek a social lic­ence. Activists do not see their actions as acceptable ... and will understandably target sponsorships.”

To Fiona Menzies, chief executive of Creative Partnerships Australia, this rallying cry is of concern. She fears recent incidents will send sponsors and donors running at a particularly fraught time for arts funding. “I don’t blame them. Why put your hand up only to get beaten up by the press?”

QAGOMA director Chris Saines fears the backlash will particularly hurt the visual arts sector, which has been the battlefield for both Australian protests. Lonely Planet co-founder and philanthropist Tony Wheeler is a rare bullish voice, telling Review he isn’t as pessimistic, but others in the sector, such as academic and philanthropist Gene Sherman, anticipate a greater caution and wariness. Sherman, however, doesn’t necessarily think this is a bad thing.

Though sympathetic to the plight of Transfield’s Belgiorno-Nettis family (she and husband Brian know the pain of going from “revered to reviled” after “cash-for-names” student protests erupted following their $2m don­ation to the University of NSW’s College of Fine Arts Paddington campus in 2010), she says the truly passionate and committed core will stay but perhaps with a new “mindfulness” about the ethics of their investments and make-up of their boards.

Investment banker Simon Mordant, chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art and Australian commissioner for the Venice Biennale, says: “Sponsors are always sensitive to issues in the organisations they support and this has been particularly visible in sports over the years when either clubs or sports have had controversial events surround them. I am hopeful the recent events won’t have a long-term impact on private-sector support for the arts as ultimately that will impact both artists and audience.”

The protests have triggered a lively debate about everything from the ethics of giving to free speech and the right to protest.

Then there is the vexed question, canvassed heavily in media a month ago, that artists and companies cannot have it both ways. Can one deny funding from Transfield, or any company, for filling a government contract, but then accept funding from that same government, whose very policies are that with which they disagree in the first place? Gabrielle de Vietri, one of the artists who withdrew from the Biennale, says there is no hypocrisy in her stance, arguing grants are distributed at arm’s-length.

Federal Arts Minister George Brandis weighed into the debate, saying: “I don’t think arts companies should reject bona fide sponsorship from commercially sound, prospective partners on political grounds.” Wheeler says if artists are “willing to stay starving in the garret in order to keep their conscience clean, well good for them”.

Other issues debated include the ramifications for Australian cultural philanthropy, and even whether so-called pure altruism exists. Can any money really be “pure” in an ethical sense, and does big business sponsorship really distort the art world through self-censorship? At a time of global austerity, can the arts afford, essentially, a moral conscience, and should the arts sector “take money from Satan himself” if it can get it, as asserted by one British commentator? Is it even practical to divide arts sponsorship into Manichean divisions of good and bad, and where do you draw the line when it comes to making these moral calibrations?

Tobacco money now fails the acceptability test, certainly, but it sponsored international Vatican travelling art blockbusters and funded National Gallery of Australia acquisitions until not so long ago. What about arms dealers’ sponsorship, such as Thales’s support of the London Transport Museum or Finmeccanica’s ties with the National Gallery (severed only after protests in 2012)?

How does Rio Tinto’s 2012 sponsorship of Bangarra’s tour to Mongolia, site of the resource giant’s new $6 billion Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine, stack up against controversy-plagued multinational Serco’s support of the Serco Illustration Prize at the London Transport Museum? How does gambling money weigh up against funds from fracking companies, which occupy a particularly low position on this moral totem pole? Are they really that much worse, some arts companies heads have pointed out to Review, than big retailers who outsource clothing manufacturing to Third World countries or “airlines who axe 5000 jobs and send them overseas”?

It’s a complicated arena, says Wheeler. “I think philanthropy and corporate sponsorship very often have potential question marks,” he says. “Why are you doing this? To polish your image? Gain some sort of advantage? Make people think you’re not so bad after all? You can certainly have that last thought about oil companies or other organisations, where some people automatically think they’re up to no good.”

Menzies, joining a host of arts ministers, corporate leaders, arts company heads and artists (think Grayson Perry in Britain), backs the goodwill of big companies and donors.

BHP Billiton, which sponsors Bangarra Dance Theatre, says its voluntary community investment last year totalled $US245.8 million globally — $US7.2 million was in the arts.

A BHP spokeswoman says: “Our approach to community investment is rigorous and drives our commitment to longer term activities that have the potential to deliver tangible outcomes and benefits. The funding is invested through our local operations in our host communities and programs are chosen based on consultation with community stakeholders, which enables us to focus on the needs, priorities and existing resources of each community we operate in.

“An organisation’s decision to receive funding and partner with BHP Billiton is a decision for them.”

QGC, a resource company that sponsors, Queensland Ballet, says: “We have a great working relationship with everyone involved with Queensland Ballet and our association has been 100 per cent positive.”

Rio Tinto, which sponsors Black Swan Theatre Company and Perth Festival, among many others, was approached for comment.

But protesters say that, too often, this investment in the arts is nothing less than a calculated act of brand management.

Why else, some argue, would resource companies, plagued by environmental protests, feature so much more prominently than other members of the blue-chip sector?

Liberation Tate’s McDonnell points to BP’s 2011 announcement of a £10m sponsorship deal to fund the British Museum, Royal Opera House, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain not long after the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for which it was later fined $US4.5bn.

McDonnell says: “Tate prides itself on having a progressive, forward-thinking agenda, so it’s really at odds with its public image to be intimately linked with one of the world’s biggest polluters. The current sponsorship deal runs out at the end of 2015 and we’re confident that Tate could be finding alternate funding sources within that timeframe that wouldn’t do so much damage to its reputation.”

But in a time of global austerity, can the arts afford to say no? As early as 1985, The New York Times was saying that Mobil-sponsored exhibitions, for example, were symbolic of one of the biggest and most controversial trends in art museums in the past decade: “the shifting of financial support … from wealthy patrons to corporations”. The corporate sector has been an invaluable lifeline, supporters argue, stepping into the vacuum left by savage cuts to government arts funding in Britain and elsewhere, but artist de Vietri says that the sums donated are not as enormous as expected: witness Transfield’s reported 6 per cent contribution (roughly $600,000 of the Biennale’s $10m budget).

But how to make moral judgments about potential sponsors? Says Menzies: “I think if you looked at almost any business, big business especially, you’d find something that someone didn’t like about them.” In any case, adds Tim Calnin, general manager of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which is also sponsored by Transfield, it would be “unworkable” for arts companies to rethink their sponsorship strategies every time a sponsor made “a broadly unpopular decision”.

McDonnell doesn’t buy the argument “all money is dirty”. “It’s just a convenient way to collapse the discussion,” he says. “Moral lines drawn in the past by different organisations excluded tobacco and arms money, for instance. So it’s a question of revisiting the ethics of funding to correspond with changing public attitudes, be that attitudes towards oil companies and climate change or revulsion over the inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers.”

Protesters also reject the common arts company defence articulated by Calnin, who says the “only line you can really draw is between the legal and the illegal ... beyond that it becomes a question of individual ethics, morals and political views”. An outraged Pennings retorts: “What is legal depends on location and who is in power.”

And on the arguments go: from the supposedly corrupting influence of corporate money on arts programming, causing self-censorship (how would an anti-mining play fare if submitted to the Rio Tinto Black Swan commissions program, for example?) to the omnipresent corporate branding that increasingly graces the hallowed walls of art. “At the gallery’s family fun day, it was pretty out there,” says Pennings. “It was Santos cups, Santos ice cream, Santos balloons …” Calnin disagrees sponsorship results automatically in a sacrifice of integrity. “As arts companies, one of the things we take very seriously is to make sure there’s a firewall between the source of funds and content of the program.”

Australian activists say closer scrutiny is more essential than ever given the depths of ties between arts and big business.

Mining company heads sit on arts company boards and foundations; mining money funds everything from principal dancers, orchestral musicians, state festivals and new theatrical commissions to university chairs in rock art, the acquisitions of new contemporary art, research into marine biodiversity and even Australian indie films (Red Dog, for example, though, as one observer has noted, “don’t even think of trying to get funding for a film that criticises the industry ... common sense really”).

Resource money — from BHP Billiton, BP, Chevron, Rio Tinto, ExxonMobil, QGC, Santos, Woodside and many others — flows through the corridors of major Australian arts flagships from Bangarra to Black Swan Theatre to the South Australian Museum to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Key players also include the Minderoo Foundation, founded in 2001 by Andrew Forrest of Fortescue Metals Group, and his wife Nicola: among other things, the Forrests donated $3m to the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s TomorrowFund and gave $3.7m in shares to divide between WA’s four major performing arts companies.

Even as global financial storm clouds gather, this sector remains a rich zone of activity. Last month, Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting was hailed as an artistic white knight when the company came to the rescue of the financially struggling Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe. The lifeline came in the name of a six-figure sponsorship deal by Hancock Prospecting as principal sponsors for this year, which includes the new $50,000 Roy Hill Sculpture Prize, named after Rinehart’s controversy-plagued giant Pilbara-based iron ore mine. The prize is the most generous sculpture prize in WA and one of the most generous art prizes in the state.

Interestingly, this growing angst about ethical funding is “remarkably absent” in the US, according to the new director of Australia’s National Portrait Gallery, Angus Trumble, who recently ended a long stint as senior curator of paintings and sculpture at Yale University’s Centre for British Art. As an audience member at the Global Giving symposium in Melbourne in February, he recounted watching in amazement as Yale conducted a campaign to raise $US4.5bn for the Yale Endowment, an activity that appeared to have “absolutely no process of ethical oversight”.

It prompted symposium speaker Mordant to reveal a similarly laissez-faire attitude at his old business school, Wharton: “We’ve just closed a $5bn campaign and there were certainly no committees of that nature at all and I did actually ask the dean at one stage about it and the response was ... that ethics weren’t part of the education system. And you can see how in my business things like Enron have happened.”

A snapshot of the American arts scene reveals the presence of big business in seemingly every cultural nook and cranny, from the presence of former Serco chief executive Edward Casey on the corporate fund board of the Kennedy Centre to Hunt Petroleum’s $US10m donation to the shiny new fracking-friendly Perot Museum of Nature and Science, to ExxonMobil’s $US4.6m donation to American arts flagships, including a $US750,000 gift to a show at Washington’s National Gallery of Art also supported by a commercial partner, Russian oil giant Rosneft.

Trumble lightheartedly speculates that this apparent national lack of ethical angst stems from the “robber baron” beginnings of American philanthropy and the view that such activity is “by definition redemptive” (“the awesome and perpetual good of the Rockefeller Foundation or the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace more than outweighs such damage as was ever caused by Standard Oil or Pittsburgh Steel”), but even in the US there is nascent dissent: witness sponsorship guidelines being introduced following an uproar over the Nation­al Rifle Association’s sponsorship of a NASCAR race last year, to the rise of a burgeoning coalition of anti-fracking artists led by Yoko Ono.

So where to for the Australian arts sector? Proposed industry changes include increasing the number of artists on boards, to having bodies modelled on the Tate ethics committee, which automatically vets any donation over £10,000.

Says Mordant: “Increasingly, arts institutions are looking to broaden their funding base to match their ambitions. This will necessarily require clear policies from those institutions’ governance structures and those policies should be regularly reviewed.”

At least one Australian arts benefactor, Sherman, sees good coming from “what seems like difficult and contentious and negative issues. Transfield is no longer supporting the Biennale but Luca Belgiorno-Nettis (the Biennale’s former chairman) could well be.

“He has his own money and if he and the family are as passionate about it as I know they are, I think it could happen. Now wouldn’t that be a happy ending?”

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