Taking the greenwashing pulse on this festival season

When it comes to funding, the arts are showing they are less imaginative than bankers, says author Tim Winton.

After years of protests by artists, a momentous win was made recently for the climate. London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) ended its 30-year partnership with oil giant BP on 22 February, after years of pressure by artists.

Within days of the news (28 February), author Tim Winton used his Perth Festival Writers Weekend closing address to implore Australian public and cultural organisations to follow suit and denounce fossil fuel arts sponsorship.

Then, on 1 March, the Greens issued a statement calling for Perth Festival, WA Youth Orchestra, and WA Symphony Orchestra to drop fossil fuel sponsorships with Woodside and Chevron, amid devastating floods nationally, and in the wake of recent WA fires.

Woodside is also a sponsor of Barking Gecko Theatre, Yirra Yaakin, and WA Ballet.

This is not a new story, but one that appears to be quickly escalating on home ground. And with the events of the past week – where the climate crisis has been bought into sharp reality – the swell locally is joining an international move by arts companies to extricated themselves from socially unsavory sponsors.

The Greens believe the answer is for the WA State Government to provide supplementary funding while new sponsors are secured. But is that financially viable when our governments are faced with flood, fire and pandemic relief?

Another suggestion, noted by writer Alex Kelly in her Overland article, is the use of a clause that artists can insert in to their contracts to reject funding derived from the extractive industries, developed by Goundwater Arts, a US artist-led initiative.

She believes that such agreements are as affective for applying pressure as are protests (which can have other knock-on effects). ‘Artists can advocate for the inclusion of similar clauses in Australia’s workplace agreements developed by our peak arts organisations such as NAVA, Theatre Network Australia, APAM and MEAA,’ said Kelly.

Voices against Greenwashing are on the rise

Australian Greens Senator for WA, Dorinda Cox said in a statement last week: ‘It’s deeply disappointing that the Perth Festival – an event that is a huge highlight in our arts calendar – is being sponsored by companies like Woodside that profit from the destruction of our climate.

‘It’s not acceptable that this event is being sponsored by one of the nation’s biggest fossil fuel polluters. Woodside…has plans for the development of the Scarborough Gas Project – the biggest carbon bomb in our nation’s history. They shouldn’t get the opportunity to “greenwash” and normalise their activities,’ continued Cox.

Read: Experts say our galleries and museums need to become greener

Winton added that the fossil fuels industry had a disproportionate influence on society and culture.

‘If we’re trying to give ourselves any chance of meeting the climate challenge, the emergency that we’re facing, then we’ve got to extricate ourselves from their influence,’ Winton said in an ABC interview.

He said that he wanted his Perth Festival address to spur ‘rational and civilised’ discussion about arts industries receiving funding from fossil fuel companies.

‘At the risk of causing embarrassment [to the festival organisers] I just tried to respectfully bring up this great reeking elephant in the room,’ Winton said. 

But, the elephant in the room goes well beyond this edition of Perth Festival.

Taking the greenwashing pulse on this festival season

It is currently a big moment for festivals and biennials nationally, with editions opening in Adelaide as Sydney and Perth Festivals wrap up. Looking across that landscape, Artshub takes the greenwashing pulse on primary sponsors, and what side of the ethics line organisations sit, as a number of big events roll out this month.  

While the 2022 Adelaide Biennial proudly does not rely on fossil fuel sponsorship, its long-running Tarnanthi Festival maintains its multi-year sponsorship agreement with BHP. The 2022 Adelaide Festival (also opening this weekend) appears to have a clean bill, bolstered largely by private foundations.

The 2022 Adelaide Fringe has turned to a green energy giant for sponsorship. Lumo Energy is owned by Snowy Hydro Limited, one of Australia’s largest and oldest renewable energy generators, since 1949.  

The festival’s website takes its commitment a step further, proudly promoting its sustainability credentials, including a public commitment to ‘a range of environmentally responsible practices’.

While elsewhere, the Biennale of Sydney is also fossil fuel free – its very theme is a whirling eddy of narratives around the climate issue – and has also moved away from the thorny repercussions of past contentions sponsorship. You might remember it got in a pickle some years back with artists boycotting Transfield Holdings as principal sponsor in 2014.

The irony is not lost that the 23rd Biennale of Sydney opened this week titled Rivus, as the states rivers and water courses overflowed with destructive flooding.

Read: Australian undercurrents: Why curators are (still) fixated on water

The 4th Indigenous Triennial, presented by the National Gallery of Australia (opening 26 March), also appears to be checked in its choice of funding partners, with a clear fossil free bill.

The reason these are singled out is because they are big budget projects that require big sponsorship.

The most comprehensive whistle-blower is the Australian arts collective The Centre for Everything, which created the Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence and Lumps of Coal in 2019, which plots out the intricate relationships between the fossil fuel sector and the arts.

It takes that deeper dive from primary sponsors to organisational boards, festival directors, and the web of associations that shape arts funding.

Oil and gas producer, Santos is another big arts sponsor in Australia, and primary sponsor of Darwin Festival, which has faced pressure from Territory artists since 2015. It will be interesting to see whether it will stay in bed with Santos for August events, given the blacklash recently received in Perth.

Alex Kelly further makes the point that Chevron has the naming rights for Perth festival’s music strand (also targeted by activists), and Rio Tinto is the premium partner of CinefestOZ, among festival and big event sponsors.

The dumpster of complacency

In his speech, Winton called the current approach to climate change a ‘smouldering dumpster fire of business as usual.’

It took years to de-throne BPs cultural platform abroad, but the standard has now been set. While Tate parted ways with oil giant BP in 2017 after three decades of sponsorship, it is only now that the National Portrait Gallery has acted – five years later – and the British Museum is still yet to comply.

It is this complacency that Winton – as well as Perth Festival artists Stella Donnelly, Fring World performer Noemie Huttner-Koros, Kuruma Marthedunera women and Murujuga traditional owner Josie Alec, and Pond frontman Nick Allbrook, have spoken out about – smouldering away on slo-mo.

Joining them – in a rare alignment with the arts – sports teams have started the push back to the resource giants. In January, Tennis Australia confirmed the end of its sponsorship agreement with gas producer Santos, a year into what was meant to be a multi-year sponsorship. While in November 2021, former Wallabies captain David Pocock spoke out about the deal between Rugby Australia and Santos, which would see their logo on the top-back of their jersey at every game.

Remember when big Tobacco advertising had the same prominence over cultural and sporting sponsorship. The sector managed to move past that influence and find alternatives.

Just as Tobacco advertising was viewed as unacceptable, so too is fossil fuel contributions today.

Australia, like the UK, however has suffered reduced government funding, tighter efficiency dividend demand, and the call from diverse income streams – needless to say a challenging charter of expectations for any not-for-profit.

According to statistics cited in the NPG press release, over the course of BP’s 30-year support for the British Portrait Award, more than six million visitors enjoyed free access to the museum’s signature exhibition, and it indirectly supported the careers of more than 1,500 portrait artists.

It’s a bitter-sweet pill to swallow, but one that artists and authors like Winton say we need to pursue regardless. Winton said he recognised it was difficult for groups that rely on sponsorship to find support, but urged those groups to look elsewhere for funding. 

‘Let’s face it — banks, super groups, investor groups, they’re all divesting of fossil fuels,’ Winton said. ‘Why should the arts industry, in particular, and why should community organisations be less imaginative and less morally aware than bankers?’

Perth Festival Executive Director Nathan Bennett said corporate sponsorship helped the not-for-profit arts organisation to provide world-class cultural experiences.

The last word of warning came from Greens (WA) spokesperson Dr Brad Pettitt this past week. ‘Woodside and Chevron alone are responsible for 14% of Australia’s total Scope 1 emissions and over a third of WA’s total annual emissions. As one of the largest exporters of LNG in the world and the only state in Australia with rising emissions, WA’s inaction will very literally have global implications.’

Do we want that reputation to lead Australia globally, especially when it is placing our arts and culture on an international stage? And what is our social contract with our artists, and the audiences we serve?

While these big resources companies play the altruistic hand, the money is relatively small given their wealth, and yet for arts companies, their contribution can often mean the difference of staging something or not.

It is a very hard decision in many ways, and yet it is also very simple.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina