Artists at the Biennale of Sydney have staged a boycott over a controversial sponsor. When should artists take a stand? And how effective are their protests? Jason Farago investigates.

The Biennale of Sydney, which runs until 9 June, is one of the oldest and most important exhibitions in the Asia-Pacific region. Now in its 19th edition, it has endured longer than any other besides Venice and São Paulo. And this year’s superb exhibition is a far more emotional and accessible affair than some recent, more academic biennials – packed with art that privileges romance, invention, mythology and the sublime.

Yet the 19th Biennale of Sydney risks being remembered not for any of the art on display but for the searing dispute that preceded the opening and very nearly derailed the entire show. It began when more than half of the 92 artists in the exhibition, Australians and foreigners alike, signed an open letter calling on the biennial’s board to sever ties with Transfield Holdings, which has sponsored the exhibition for decades. Transfield Holdings, a private company, has a minority stake in Transfield Services, a public corporation which holds a government contract to administer two of Australia’s immigrant detention centers – the highly controversial offshore facilities used to detain migrants and refugees attempting a treacherous arrival via boat. These detention centers, which have witnessed hunger strikes and at least one death, have been condemned by the United Nations and referred to by critics as “Australia’s Guantánamo”. Nevertheless both major political parties and a majority of Australians support the mandatory detention policy.

In the open letter, the artists argued that “we regard our role in the Biennale, under the current sponsorship arrangements, as adding value to the Transfield brand,” and called on the board to refuse its money. First the biennial demurred, leading nine artists to drop out of the show. Then it reversed: Transfield was cut loose, and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Transfield’s executive director and one of the most significant philanthropists in Australian art, resigned as chairman of the biennial’s board. (Most of the artists who dropped out then returned, though two stayed away.) By the time of the opening the tone was notably strained. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the state’s minister for the arts bewailed a “a vague boycott with no direct aims and intentions,” while in the press artists have been called naive and ungrateful, as if art existed in some picturesque, unsullied plane beyond the real world.

Taking a stand

The Biennale of Sydney is just one of several cultural organisations to face protests in a season when art and politics have been grinding against each other. The Frieze Art Fair’s New York edition, which opens in May, has been called out for its exclusion of union labour at its tent on Randall’s Island, with several artists voicing public objections. (The fair and labor organisations are now in discussions.) At the Guggenheim Museum, demonstrators have staged vibrant protests, including dropping fake money from the building’s Frank Lloyd Wright spiral, to highlight working conditions at the museum’s outpost in Abu Dhabi – where debt-indentured laborers endure broiling heat, squalid housing, and the confiscation of their passports. Just last week Olivier Py, the renegade French theatre director who leads the Festival d’Avignon, caused a national uproar when he announced he would either quit or relocate the festival if a politician from the hard-right Front National won Avignon’s mayoral race – the candidate lost, in the end.

Sydney was especially important because it struck at one of culture’s most critical questions: the dependency of the art world on big money, whether from corporations or from super-wealthy individuals. While industrialised economies continue to stagnate – Australia, to be fair, is something of an exception – the art world keeps booming, and that has led to some long-repressed questions being aired in public. As the economist William Goetzmann has demonstrated, prices for art rise not in line with a nation’s gross domestic product, but in parallel with rising income inequality; in other words, art does well when most people are doing badly. Moreover, at a moment of near-universal austerity – and Australia’s conservative government is preparing a very tough new budget – corporate philanthropy has become ever more important for public institutions. At a time of rising inequality, philanthropic money raises more hackles: especially as such philanthropy can serve as a form of tax avoidance.

These tensions are only going to get more palpable if corporate power waxes unchecked and if, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has recently insisted, income inequality continues to increase in the decades to come. And while financial services companies and polluting industrial concerns are often the targets of the largest protests in the art world, they are not the only offenders. Tobacco and alcohol companies, casinos, and even entire countries have also come in for criticism. How is a socially engaged artist supposed to respond to such conditions? Are the only options boycotting all ethically dubious sponsors or diving into a pool of filthy lucre?

Aesthetic activism

It’s unquestionable that artists contribute to the value of a sponsoring corporation, whether it’s a bank or an oil company, by showing their work in an exhibition they support. Yet given the nature of both the art world and the economy more generally, dropping out hippie-style is not an option. Art gains meaning from its display as much as its form and content, and an artist, in addition to making good art, also must negotiate that display’s nexus of political and economic concerns. The goal, then, is to find a way to operate critically inside the art world as it exists.

One thing to keep in mind is that the room for manoeuvre is actually much more capacious than blowhard pundits acknowledge. The Sydney biennial, for example, includes multiple works that explicitly invoke the question of immigration. An artist doesn’t have to abandon their convictions even if they’re exhibiting in a show whose sponsors she opposes. They can spin their opposition inside the white cube, or else speak their mind outside it.

Yet at certain key moments, a knowing opposition inside the system is not enough. A more radical step is required when confronted with certain red lines. One of those, 51 artists recently agreed, was the Australian government’s mandatory detention policy. That program continues – proof, to sputtering government ministers and art-hating newspaper columnists, that the artists’ open letter and partial boycott was fruitless. But given the global attention that is now directed to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, I’d say the artists have succeeded.

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