Friday, April 11, 2014

Australia's Biennale Corporate Sponsorship Saga is a Lesson for Everyone

In Australia, a recent sponsorship decision of the Sydney Biennale is testing the relationship between the government, arts organizations, artists and sponsors.  

As government investment is eroded and ticket sales cannot keep up to the rising cost of producing arts events, increasingly organizations are turning to corporations for help with the bottom line. While many productive partnerships between large companies and non-profit corporations exist, navigating the fine line between a good partnership and a partnership that will alienate the artists and audience can be tricky. 

A prime example is the recent uproar in Australia over Transfield Holding’s sponsorship of the Biennale of Sydney.  Transfield is a company that is contracted by the Australian federal government to supply facilities to the Manus Island Detention Centre, where asylum-seekers are sent to await processing.  Outrage over the partnership led to boycotts by artists and eventually a mutual termination of the partnership. 

The government was unhappy with the decision. George Brandis, the Minister for Arts, wrote to the Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts, Rupert Myer,  “At a time when government funding for the arts is, like all demands upon the budget, under pressure, it is difficult to justify funding for an arts festival which has announced to its principal private partner that it would prefer not to receive its financial support.”  He added, “Equally appalling is the fact that the board of the Biennale, apparently under pressure from certain individual artists, has decided to decline to accept funding from a generous benefactor, because of the political opinion of those individual artists, concerning a matter which has nothing to do with the Sydney Biennale.”

Essentially, the minister told the arts community that beggars can’t be choosers.  He worried that the controversy would send the wrong message to other corporations who would withdraw funding in fear that an artist would boycott them and draw attention to an unpleasant aspect of their business.  It is almost as if he thinks that corporations only support the arts as a way to distract the public from what they really do. 

Here in Canada there seem to be far fewer of these tenuous relationships.  Corporate sponsorships, undeniably, are part of the art funding landscape.  For the big companies, it offers the opportunity to expose large audiences to your brand, build your philanthropic image, and usually comes with some free marketing.  For the arts organizations it provides the funding necessary to pull off a season that would otherwise be difficult to do without outside money. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Sponsorship Marketing Council of Canada and the Sponsorship Report have been paying attention to the growing industry of corporate sponsorships and have been put in place a policy of best-practices.

Thankfully, we haven’t had a minister tell the arts sector that beggars can’t be choosers, though artists and arts organizations should have the power to choose their sponsors.  Most organizations have a mandate that goes beyond the creation of their art and they should be given the power to partner with a sponsor that fits with that mandate.  Individual artists can, and should, think independently, and if they feel they are being used for propaganda, their art will likely suffer. 


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