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Sponsorship: Blurred Lines

This article was first published in The Daily Review March 26 2014

Raymond Gill, ‘Arts Sponsorship: Blurred Lines and Mixed Signals’.

Australia’s performing arts companies appeared to have no ethical guidelines on sponsorship, or that was the case until this morning when the umbrella group representing the 28 major companies released this statement, which is a kind of non-statement.

“Each Australian Major Performing Arts  Group company has its own Board and is responsible for its own governance. It is the responsibility of each of those Boards to act in a manner that is in the best interests of their company, in both the short and long term. Those Boards will as a matter of course consider a range of issues when dealing with donations and sponsorship arrangements and every case will be unique. The overriding aim will be to develop long term, strategic relationships on a sustainable basis for both the company and the donor or sponsor,” the AMPAG statement said, reiterating that all decisions are board decisions.

The statement was released after Daily Review had been asking major arts companies if they had ethical guideline policies in place, and if it was felt that future sponsorship could be affected by the recent Sydney Biennale and Transfield controversy. Biennale artists were successful in pressuring Biennale management to cut its ties with Transfield because of its involvement in offshore refugee detention camps.

The unprecedented action has sparked debate around the country, not the least among arts boards who are privately addressing the ramifications of artists taking action against the organisations they work with. The issue has become hotter in the past week because of continued protests by activists against the energy company Santos and its sponsorship of the Queensland Art Gallery, which the group Alpha Generation says is using the gallery to “launder” its “dirty money”.

Last week Fiona Menzies the director of Creative Partnerships Australia told Daily Review that just as private corporations have clear guidelines on which they will sponsor, arts companies should also have clear guidelines on whom they would accept sponsorship from.

Daily Review‘s questions to performing arts companies mostly met with no response, though some responded by saying they declined to respond.

“We see the matter relating to the Biennale as an extremely isolated instance and the issue is not one that currently has great significance for us. So we can’t see that there will be any real purpose served in responding to these questions,” a spokesperson for the State Theatre Company of South Australia said. As of today, other companies have referred our queries to the AMPAG statement as their response to our questions asking about  ethical sponsorship guidelines and if the Biennale issue could affect future sponsorship.

The Biennale case is the biggest issue to impact the arts since the Bill Henson sexualisation of children controversy of 2008. That incident continues to infect Australian artistic life through the continued attacks on Henson and the  hastily introduced Australia Council “protocols” for working with people under age 18.

The Biennale issue has the potential to impact on all arts companies. It might be irrelevant to some companies that artists protested against a sponsor’s commercial attitude to asylum seekers, but what is relevant is that a group of disparate, geographically isolated, freelance artists can band together and push back against an organisation run by full-time paid arts managers and the community and business leaders who most often fill their boards.

An arts company is only as good as the artists it represents. Whether you agree with the 51 out of about 90 artists who protested Transfield’s involvement in the Sydney Biennale, it is an artist’s role, as it has always been,  to question, protest and push against the status quo.

Every arts company in the country probably receives funding from an organisation that some could claim is “tainted” whether a bank, a superannuation fund, a mining company or a philanthropic organisation, depending on where its investments are made. Arts companies need to be clear so that their employees, artists and audiences know who is helping fund their jobs and their entertainment. Both the Henson and Biennale issues have shown that controversies can ignite and take hold without warning.

By contrast with our performing arts companies, many of the organisations most affected by the Henson fallout and potentially in the firing line from the Biennale fracas, have clear guidelines about sponsorship.

The Queensland Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria have guidelines and state government enforced protocols. QAG’s Celestine Doyle said that “ethical behaviour and fair dealing are among those important principals in partnership considerations.”

“We wouldn’t for example have a sponsorship relationship with organisations that were discriminatory, whose products are overwhelmingly considered by the community to be harmful, or where opposition reaches a level of social consensus – such as tobacco. Further, tobacco advertising is prohibited so of course we wouldn’t accept tobacco sponsorship,” said Doyle, the gallery’s deputy director of marketing and business development.

The NGV will not take sponsorship from organisations that include ‘”tobacco companies, political organisations or lobby groups, religious organisations; and organisations whose activities may be contrary to community values.”

Michael Baldwin, the National Gallery of Australia’s assistant director of development, marketing and operations said new NGA partnerships are preceded by a “thorough consideration scoping possible conflicts and identifying areas of potential concern with regard to the organisation’s history and reputation, particularly with regard to environmental and social impact and governance principles.”

“In light of recent developments surrounding the Sydney Biennale, the NGA is drafting a sponsorship risk register as a mechanism to assist the gallery in anticipating and responding to possible areas of conflict or concern with regard to current and prospective sponsors,” Baldwin said, though he said he did not think sponsorship will become more difficult as a result of the Biennale fallout.

QAG’s Doyle was more circumspect about the effects of the Biennale. “I do think there will be an impact for a time. Securing sponsorship is always challenging. But I believe the relationships we build with our partners are strong and built on shared ambitions. I am confident we will continue to generate sponsorship and philanthropic support to achieve our vision to build audiences for visual art,” she said.