Luca Belgiorno-Nettis resigned from his position as chair of the board of the Biennale of Sydney on March 7. Biennale organisers announced it was cutting ties with major sponsor Transfield, of which Belgiorno-Nettis is a director.
The divestment was the result of pressure from artists boycotting the Biennale, because of Transfield's connection to the detention of asylum seekers. The company has a $1.2 billion contract to run the Nauru and Manus Island centres.
The Biennale board said: “We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately."
The organisers had previously supported Belgiorno-Nettis and Transfield, saying last month: “The Biennale’s ability to effectively contribute to the cessation of bipartisan government policy is far from black and white. The only certainty is that without our founding partner, the Biennale will no longer exist."
It was only Belgiorno-Nettis's resignation that changed their stance.
In a statement, Belgiorno-Nettis said: “With many of the participating artists now torn between loyalty to our creative director and wanting to make a stand against this government policy, the core spirit of the festival is under a dark cloud. There would appear to be little room for sensible dialogue, let alone deliberation."
Arts minister George Brandis waded into the issue a few days later, by threatening to end public funding of the Biennale for its “effective blackmailing of a benefactor”. The senator thinks that the Australia Council – the government body responsible for arts funding – should be able to cut funding to any applicant that “refuses funding offered by corporate sponsors”.
“I don’t think that arts companies should reject bona fide sponsorship from commercially sound, prospective partners of political grounds — I don’t,” he said.
But the artists' demands seemed sensible enough. A statement released by artists said: “We will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, because it is ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights; and that, as a network of artists, arts workers and a leading cultural organisation, we do not want to be associated with these practices.”
RISE, an organisation run by refugees, said in a statement: “RISE supports a complete boycott of the 19th Sydney Biennale as Transfield, a major sponsor and partner of this event, receives income from the operation of Australia’s deadly offshore internment camps for refugees and asylum seekers."
Peter Nelson, an artist hired to work as an installer during the festival, wrote in his resignation statement: “An arts community has to be credible, it has to be about something. For me to equivocate and delay on a situation that I knew in my heart to be wrong would make life as an artist feel empty and meaningless.”
What's not sensible in this situation is the very thing these artists protested against: the government's asylum seeker policy. Many arguments against the brave stand of the artists also missed key points.
An article on The Conversation website said: “Artists receiving Australia Council money are taking government money. So from my perspective it is quite reasonable for non-Australian artists to be so appalled by the acts of both the Australian government and their contractors that they remove themselves from the Biennale.”
But there is a difference between a company that makes profits from detaining refugees, and government funding that is derived from taxpayer money. Boycotts of government should be based on refusing to carry out certain policies, not refusing to take our own tax dollars.
A Sydney Morning Herald article by Nicholas Pickard, a former arts adviser to the federal government, complained that artists had failed to condemn Transfield's investments in other areas such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra. “It would then be logical to also boycott companies that fund the Liberal-Nationals Coalition, which implements the detention policy,” he wrote. “These companies include Santos, Woodside Energy, ANZ, Zip Industries, Macquarie Group, Herbert Smith Freehills and Westfield Group.”
Pickard's tactic was to take one example to a ridiculous extreme. It is possible for campaigns to recognise the many connections in society, but it is unreasonable to expect them to act on all of it at the same time.
The Biennale boycott is just one step along a path that could lead the movement to challenge other corporate connections to mandatory detention, and perhaps even corporate influence in politics generally.
“No artist ever changed the world by writing a letter or signing a petition,” wrote Pickard. “But artists have changed hearts and minds through their work and their creativity.
"An active and creative response to the plight of asylum seekers would have done far more for this issue.”
Somehow, Pickard missed the fact that the artists not only wrote letters, but actively boycotted the Biennale and achieved change, as well as public awareness of the government's crimes.
The example of the boycott is spreading. Australian Services Union secretary Sally McManus said the ASU has called on HESTA, the industry super fund to which most ASU members belong, to divest from Transfield.
She said: “Social and community workers do not want their retirement savings used to support a system of mandatory detention of asylum seekers and believe it is immoral for corporations to profit from the indefinite and inhuman detention of other human beings.”
The boycott strategy would be very effective in the campaign against mandatory detention because so much of the infrastructure is run by private companies like Transfield and Serco, which have a wide range of activities in other sectors such as construction.
These companies have links with many institutions including charities, welfare providers and universities. This gives the potential for a broad public campaign targeting many areas of society and involving a wide range of people.
Much the same effect has been achieved by the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The campaign provides an active task that can raise public awareness and achieve concrete effects.
As long as the focus of the campaign is on the immorality of detention — not just the particular wrongs or inefficiency of private operators — the boycott campaign inevitably reflects on the government's policy itself.
And the artists' boycott shows that it can win.