Sydney Biennale faces Transfield boycott threat

A Sydney academic has called for a boycott of the Sydney Biennale, reports Ben Eltham. Why is he calling for it, and will it work?
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Matthew Kiem teaches design at a Sydney tertiary institution. He’s also a passionate campaigner for the rights of asylum seekers and refugee rights.

The collision of those two interests may just have major implications for Sydney’s premiere internal art exhibition, the Sydney Biennale. That’s because Kiem has called for a boycott of the event, owing to sponsorship from investment company Transfield Holdings.

The reason? Transfield Holdings is a key shareholder in Transfield Services, a company which is intimately involved in the management of offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Kiem has penned an open letter to other visual arts teachers and the visual arts and design communities in general. ‘The 19th Biennale of Sydney is sponsored by Transfield, a company contracted to run Australian detention centres, which they do on a for-profit basis,’ he writes. ‘Transfield Services Ltd recently announced plans to take on further work at the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres.’

‘This means that profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale,’ Kiem argues. ‘Clearly, the most appropriate response to this situation is to boycott the Biennale.’

Kiem picked up a brochure for the Biennale featuring the Transfield logo at his design school one day, and decided to act. ‘We received some marketing from the Biennale, and I read that it was being funded by the company that was contracted to do work at the offshore detention centres, so it seemed appropriate to make a response to that,’ he said.

‘As I wrote, I think design educators in particular are in quite a good position to make a response to this, and to demonstrate that they’re not willing to support events that are funded through profits made from mandatory detention,’ he continued.

Boycotts and sponsorship protests have worked against cultural events and businesses before. In 2003, the decision by Tasmanian arts festival Ten Days on the Island to accept sponsorship from Forestry Tasmania ignited a storm of protest. A number of high profile writers and artists pulled out of attending the festival, and major reputation damage was inflicted. Chocolate retailer Max Brenner has also been targeted by pro-Palestinian protesters supporting the so-called ‘BDS’ movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions) in recent years, owing to its links to the Israeli military.

Read: Biennale boycott backlash: vicious ingratitude or valid critique?

Transfield Holdings is a long-time supporter of the arts, particularly the visual arts, stretching back to the philanthropy of founder Franco Belgiorno-Nettis. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, scion of the family fortune, is currently the Biennale’s Chair. Transfield Holdings has an approximately 12 per cent stake in Transfield Services, an infrastructure company. In recent years Transfield Services has also been heavily involved in running and managing detention centres for the Australian Government.

According to Angela Mitropoulos, a researcher on immigration policy at the University of Sydney, Transfield’s contract with the federal government to run detention centres is worth over $300 million. ‘Transfield is taking over the entire operations on both Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru,’ she told ArtsHub in an email.

‘Mandatory detention is not something that exists on islands hundreds of miles away,’ Mitropoulos argues. ‘It has become part of the unseen fabric of various contracts and transactions. Buying a ferry ticket to view an art installation on Cockatoo Island, or taking out superannuation from a particular fund may well be contributing to the internment industry.’

But will a boycott of the Sydney Biennale gather steam? 

So far, no high profile artists have yet declared they won’t be turning up. But the art world is a highly political and symbolically-aware milieu, and it’s not impossible that the boycott could eventually make Transfield’s involvement in sponsoring the Biennale highly controversial. For Kiem, that’s part of the point. ‘A lot of people are surprised shocked and disappointed to learn that the Biennale is funded through the detention policies,’ he argues. ‘We can and should be putting pressure on the Biennale organisers to find other ways of funding art.’

ArtsHub approached the Biennale for their response to the threat of a boycott. ‘The Biennale of Sydney is a festival of art and ideas,’ a spokeswoman replied. ‘We bring attention to the ideas and issues of our times by facilitating opportunities for artists to express their views on contemporary issues.’

‘We respect the right of people to express their views. However, the legitimate voice of the artist should not be denied.’

transfield and the sydney biennale from Beyond Borders on Vimeo.

Correction: This article originally described the Sydney Biennale’s sponsor as ‘Transfield’. The article has been amended to reflect the fact that the Biennale is sponsored by Transfield Holdings, not Transfield Services, the company operating the detention centre on Manus Island. Transfield Holdings remains a significant investor in Transfield Services. 

Ben Eltham
About the Author
Ben Eltham is ArtsHub's industry columnist.