For several weeks there have been mounting calls for a separation of the Biennale of Sydney from its founding sponsor Transfield Holdings, because of the ‘chain of associations’ through to Transfield Services, the public company, which has contracts with the Australian Government to provide services at the offshore detention centres.
One could argue that last year’s popular election vindicates this detention policy as supported by the majority of Australians. However, the policy and the camp conditions have been widely criticized by local and international human rights groups. I wear two hats of relevance to this situation: one as Chair of the Biennale of Sydney and the other as Director of Transfield Holdings. Each of these organisations was conceived by my father and nurtured by my family over many decades. Transfield Holdings listed Transfield Services in 2001, and retains a minor shareholding with no continuing influence on its business. The more ardent advocates are asking that the Biennale make a total disassociation from Transfield Services by suggesting that Holdings either divorce itself from the Biennale or sell its shareholding..
The situation has now reached a crescendo: out of the 92 artists, 10 artists have withdrawn to date. There would appear to be little room for sensible dialogue, let alone deliberation. Yesterday I learnt that some international government agencies are beginning to question the decision of the Biennale’s Board to stand by Transfield. Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of “blood on your hands”. I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naïve and offensive. This situation is entirely unfair - especially when directed towards our dedicated Biennale team who give so much of themselves.
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. A week away from opening, I am mindful of what the Biennale experience should mean to our many thousands of participants: artists, venue partners, audience, benefactors, sponsors and government agencies.
So today I have tendered my resignation from the Biennale Board in the hope that some blue sky may open up over this 19th Biennale of Sydney: ‘Imagine what you desire’…and its future incarnations!
I am deeply thankful to the many friends of the Biennale, and my personal friends who have supported me throughout my tenure, especially in recent weeks. I also express my gratitude to my fellow Directors, past and present, to Marah and her beautiful team, and Juliana, for their unequivocal allegiance to me and the Biennale.It must be pretty clear from this blog that I have severe reservations about asylum seeker policy over the last three Governments, but all this is too much. In a piece in the SMH, Nicholas Pickard wrote:
The arts are the only loser in the Biennale of Sydney's decision to sever ties with founding sponsor Transfield, and its chief executive Luca Belgiorno-Nettis' resignation as Biennale chairman.
Despite this, the Twittersphere was full of self-congratulatory comments by artists and refugee activists celebrating the decision. The end result of the protest is the that contract for the Papua New Guinea and Nauru detention centres still exists and the arts have lost the support of a major sponsor, pushing aside a family that has done more for the arts in Sydney than anyone in the past 40 years.I agree with this. I think that what has happened is plain wrong-headed. By all manner of means go after Transfield Services if you think that this will help. I am not convinced, I think that this is likely to be counter-productive, but it's arguable. However, this action simply plays into the hands of those supporting the current border protection policy,
I have tried to think of a scenario in which all this might have a positive outcome. For the life of me, I can't. Perhaps you can? .