Artswashing dilemma continues to plague festivals

Darwin Festival is the latest arts organisation to fall afoul of protestors demanding the festival divest itself from a sponsorship with energy company Santos.
a large music concert crowd and stage with small fireworks being set off.

Late last week, Darwin Festival launched its 2022 program. On the same day, a delegation of Traditional Owners from Larrakia Country, the Tiwi Islands and the Beetaloo Basin, joined by members of the Northern Territory arts group Fossil Free Arts NT, held a ‘Darwin Festival Dump Santos’ campaign rally in Darwin’s CBD.

The campaign includes an open letter signed by over 200 Australian artists (including 130 from the Northern Territory) calling on the festival to end their decades-long sponsorship deal with Santos, one of various energy companies conducting exploratory gas projects and drilling for gas (fracking) in parts of the NT.

The protest is the latest in a series of actions seen in Australia and internationally, as pressure mounts on arts organisations to divest themselves of contracts with non-renewable energy companies and the extractive industries (businesses that extract raw materials, such as oil, coal, iron and gold from the earth).

Recent action by artists includes Australian author Tim Winton, who publicly called on Perth Festival to end their ties with fossil fuel sponsors earlier this year. Winton was subsequently backed by the Australian Greens, who issued a statement at the time reiterating the need for several other WA arts companies to end their relationships with fossil fuel sponsors, citing the country’s disastrous flood and bush-fire tolls as evidence that urgent change is needed.

Internationally, galleries like the Tate and London’s National Portrait Gallery have already distanced themselves from fossil fuel sponsors, sometimes after years of protests.

And in WA, at least one arts organisation has proposed the creation of an arts code of ethics to help circumvent such challenges in future.

Time for Darwin Festival to dump Santos?

The protesters against Darwin Festival’s partnership with Santos claim the oil and gas producer’s extractive projects not only threaten the NT’s water security, but are in some cases disrupting traditional Indigenous songlines and sacred Country, as well as being dangerous contributors to climate change.

‘Santos’ contested sponsorship of the Darwin Festival is a stark example of the damage done to our communities, culture and climate when our institutions lend platforms to polluting companies to continue these harmful practices,’ the open letter reads in part.

‘Darwin Festival rightly prides itself on its Indigenous Australian and wider First Nations programming, yet the integrity of this commitment is undermined by its continued sponsorship relationship,’ the letter states.

Darwin Festival Dump Santos campaign launch, 16 June 2022. l- r: Gillian Limmen, Naomi Wilfred, Johnny Wilson, Nurrdalinji Aboriginal Corporation. Image courtesy Original Power.

Kris Keogh is a musician based in Nhulunbuy, Arnhem Land, who has previously been involved with Darwin Festival as a performer, DJ and composer.

He is now part of the Fossil Free Arts NT group, and says he cannot stand by and watch a sponsor with bad form with the local community constrain the Festival any longer.

‘The way I see it, Santos is holding the Festival back,’ he said.

‘From our research, there are other sponsors who would love that sponsorship opportunity. But at the moment, they won’t go near it because it would be a bad look for them – they just don’t want their names under the Santos name.’

Read: Taking the greenwashing pulse on this festival season

Keogh attributed part of the Festival’s unwillingness to drop Santos as a sponsor to its Board, where a proportion its members have links to the fossil fuel sector.

‘It’s time for them to clean up their board,’ he told ArtsHub. ‘A third of their board members have strong fossil fuel links.

‘It’s time for Festival management to show real leadership, because it’s clear that artists and audiences want action on this,’ Keogh said.

Artists held back from speaking out?

Like many of the artists involved in the current campaign, it’s clear that Keogh considers Darwin Festival an important annual fixture for both local artists and Northern Territory audiences.

While he has previously performed in the Festival, Keogh is not part of this year’s Darwin Festival program. Keogh claimed that if he was, he wouldn’t be allowed to talk publicly on this topic, due to a clause within the Festival’s artist contracts which prevents them from speaking publicly in disparaging ways about the festival or its sponsors.

Keogh believes that such clauses have likely always been included in Festival contracts, but thinks the issue came to a head after an incident during the 2018 Festival when local singer-songwriter Leah Flanagan publicly expressed her opposition to Santos’ actions as part of her performance at the Santos-sponsored opening night event.

‘She hasn’t had another gig there [with the Festival] since,’ Keogh told ArtsHub.

‘That said, she is touring the US with Midnight Oil right now – so she’s doing alright without the Festival,’ he laughed. ‘But she really took one for the team there.’

No overnight solutions for festivals with fossil fuel partners

Evidently, Santos’ partnership with Darwin Festival has been a point of contention for some NT artists for a long time, but Keogh says this year it’s come to a head.

‘The pressure is really ramping up,’ he said. ‘I think fossil fuel sponsorships are going the same way as smoking and tobacco [sponsorships]. They are really outdated and it has to end.’

However, another timely question is how arts organisations like Darwin Festival can extricate themselves from longstanding sponsorships with trusted partners, and secure new deals with other companies, without compromising their already stretched resources?

While Darwin Festival were not available for comment for this story, members of their Board met with protest group members last week to listen to their concerns in person.

The Festival has also released a statement acknowledging the campaign’s concerns and signalling a willingness to continue to meet with the group towards future solutions.  

They did, however, make clear that Darwin Festival’s 2022 Santos sponsorship will remain unchanged due to contractual arrangements already in place.

The statement reads: ‘While there are already contractual commitments in place for this year’s Festival, the board has met with representatives of the concerned artists and has agreed to meet with them again, and other key stakeholders after this year’s Festival to discuss its future funding options.’

Could an arts code of ethics help?

In this case, Darwin Festival appear to be bound (in the short term at least) to a sponsor that many of their artist stakeholders regard as compromising the Festival’s integrity and conflicting with their personal values.

And while the Festival has acted with sincerity in meeting with the groups concerned, they have yet to show transparency around the organisational decision-making processes that lie behind these sponsorship deals.

Chief Executive Artist of media art group pvi collective, Kelli McCluskey, believes that in such situations, an arts code of ethics could help.

‘If organisations such as Darwin Festival had established their own code of ethics that helps them be clear about who they align themselves with, and what kind of sponsors align with their own values and ethics, then we would have never been in the situations we are in now,’ she told ArtsHub.

Read: Fossil fuels arts money: where are the alternatives?

McCluskey said that such an ethical code could form part of arts companies’ strategic planning documentation, allowing them to have a clear go-to reference point if concerns are raised.

‘It allows you to say, “We stand by this, we are clearly stating this,”’ McCluskey said, adding that while each company is responsible for devising their own ethical frameworks, a spirit of sector collegiality would also go a long way in the current environment.

‘I think we should have each other’s backs on this,’ she said.

‘I think we need to do this together, and understand that it could be a lot trickier for slightly larger arts organisations that have these problems more baked in to their infrastructure. We need to understand that these situations are problematic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t solve them,’ she said.

‘It’s absolutely time to move on this, and we can do it together,’ McCluskey concluded.

ArtsHub's Arts Feature Writer Jo Pickup is based in Perth. An arts writer and manager, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre, STRUT dance, and the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA, as well as being a sessional arts lecturer at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).