Some of the babies the Government plans to deport to Nauru
The author of this article is grants manager for a significant Australian arts organisation, which has requested they remain anonymous.
This week the Minister for the Arts announced the first fast-tracked recipients of the Federal Government’s Catalyst Arts and Culture Fund. Within 24 hours of this announcement another significant decision, seemingly unrelated, was passed down from the High Court of Australia, ruling that Australia’s offshore detention regime at Nauru and Manus Island is lawful and will allow the Government to return approximately 250 asylum seekers, including 37 babies, currently in Australia back to Nauru – to detention centres which are plagued in notoriety including overwhelming allegations of sexual assault from Centre Guards to young women and children.
Like many other arts administrators I spent a large part of the end of last year putting together an application for the arts organisation I work for to the Catalyst Fund. My organisation’s application at its core, focused on the need for children to engage in artistic experiences.
I hope that the organisation I work for does receive Catalyst Funding and I hope I will be able to write an email to my CEO and Directors and ask them to consider NOT accepting the money.
Given the proximity of these news events, it got me to thinking.What I would do if tomorrow the Minister for the Arts announced our organisation as a successful recipient of the Catalyst Fund? Would I be comfortable accepting money from a government who seems intent on forcing newly born children to offshore detention centres, frequently likened to concentration camps? Would I feel comfortable as a Government ‘good news story ‘peddling arts education programs for ‘Australian’ children, whilst in the background that same Government seems intent to deny the most basic human rights to children seeking asylum, let alone an education or the concept of childhood?
Most importantly, how can I voice that protest within the organisational context?
Artists have a long and close relationship with protest. The well-publicised Biennale of Sydney Boycott in 2014 articulated the same anxieties to do with Australia’s process of off shore detention and to great effect led to the resignation of the Biennale of Sydney Chair.
Recently visiting Chinese Artist and Activist Ai Weiwei has pulled his work from the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum and the Copenhagen gallery Faurschou Foundation in Denmark to protest the countries recently passed bill which allows for the confiscations of migrants valuables. I wonder If Weiwei will follow through by pulling his work from the NGV’s Andy Warhol| Ai Wei Wei blockbuster? Given the bipartisan determination to wipe asylum seeker rights from the national conscience I doubt Australia’s latest move will reach that artist’s ears.
The capacity for artists to protest lies in their agility in responding to political events of the day. The artist’s ability to disrupt the organisational or institutional structure is the platform of protest for both of the above examples. These examples demonstrates artists’ views of organisations and institutions as symbols of what they must protest against.
An organisation’s capacity to protest is limited. The restrictions of planning years in advance and the constant need to satisfy financial stakeholders means organisations have very little room to manoeuvre. Although extremely effective in providing a critical conversation introspectively and protesting when it comes to sector needs, arts organisations often see engaging in the wider political landscape as a high risk manoeuvre.
Combine that with a sector culture which values jumping on every possible funding opportunity with secondary consideration to the source of funding or the history of the individual, foundation or corporation, and we have organisational cultures which see the task of protest as an artist-led role. This is a paranoid and potentially lazy approach. Institutional change starts from the inside.
I hope that the organisation I work for does receive Catalyst Funding and I hope I will be able to write an email to my CEO and Directors and ask them to consider NOT accepting money from an initiative that is so closely tied to the current Government.
The potential of that bold move is to spark a conversation which is more valuable than dollars.
I don’t expect that email to succeed. But I do expect that as arts organisations, as not-for-profits at least consider resisting a traditional capitalist trajectory, as many individuals who choose to work in the arts already do. In this way organisations can embrace the potential to amplify that voice of provocation.