23/03/2021 - 09:00

Tide turning on ethics of arts funding

23/03/2021 - 09:00

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Artists are putting pressure on arts organisations to think more carefully about where their funds come from.

Tide turning on ethics of arts funding
Richard Sowada says Revelation Perth International Film Festival had lost money due to some of its relationships.

Western Australian arts bodies and the artists who work with them are fast approaching a tipping point in terms of funding.

Of primary concern is the nature of the relationships between arts organisations and the businesses that support them, and whether there is a mismatch in terms of ethics and behaviour, particularly in regards to climate action and social responsibility.

In WA, for example, oil and gas and resources companies support a majority of the arts events in the state, and the sector is concerned about the ethical messaging the tie-up sends.

It’s an issue playing out in many parts of the world.

Artists are increasingly protesting partnerships between arts organisations and companies whose operations result in negative environmental and/or social outcomes.

Protesters in the UK challenged The National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Tate Modern’s relationship with BP; all have since cut ties with the oil giant.

Activists have campaigned for prestigious organisations, including the Louvre and London’s National Portrait Gallery, to refuse funds from the Sackler Trust, the charity foundation of the US family that owns Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company criticised for its role in the opioid crisis.

Artists have also made their voices heard locally.

For the past two years, Fringe World Festival’s launch has been disrupted by climate protesters challenging the festival’s partnership with Woodside Petroleum.

In 2020, Perth Festival’s Chevron Lighthouse was also targeted by protesters who took a stand against Chevron’s support of the festival.

Creative Partnerships Australia WA state manager James Boyd, who advises organisations on funding and philanthropic matters, said the ethics of sponsorship was a growing issue for the sector.

So much so that Mr Boyd has been selected as a Churchill Fellow to study the topic overseas and investigate alternative funding models for the arts.

He said there was an increasing awareness among arts organisations’ leaders and board members regarding the perception of accepting money from sponsors.

“We are now very familiar with the sponsorship ethics in relation to tobacco, we are getting more and more aware of ethical issues towards alcohol, but the other big two are pharmacy and resources, particularly as younger generations become more concerned with climate change and other such issues, mental health etcetera,” Mr Boyd said.

“In some cases, organisations are prepared to turn down sponsors, but the big issue of course is that most frequently cannot afford to do so.”

In WA especially, Mr Boyd said, there was not a lot of money offered from companies outside of the resources and oil and gas sectors, and arts companies could not be as selective as they perhaps would like.

According to Business News’s Data & Insights, the private sector accounted for $25.4 million (11 per cent) of the $230.6 million total revenue reported by the top 20 arts and cultural organisation in 2020.

Business News collated a list of the top corporate sponsors of the arts organisations that received the most support from the private sector.

Woodside is the key corporate partner of Fringe World Festival, Barking Gecko Theatre and WA Ballet, while Wesfarmers is the top corporate supporter of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, the West Australian Opera and the Art Gallery of WA.

“There is no doubt the reliance of private sector revenue for arts organisations has increased dramatically,” Mr Boyd said.

Chamber of Arts and Culture of WA executive director Shelagh Magadza said the state government had reduced funding for the arts over the past decade and encouraged organisations to seek private partnerships to compensate.

“The sector has been squeezed by static or declining funding from government,” Ms Magadza told Business News.

“Given the lack of diversity in the WA economy, the resources sector has been the source of a large portion of the funding needed to bridge that gap.

“Across the sector, various organisations are assessing their partnerships based on considerations of shared values … I think this needs to be seen as not an arts issue, but the reality of the WA economy overall.”

Other sectors such as health and education were equally affected by these conversations, Ms Magadza said.

Who to partner with?

Revelation Perth International Film Festival has refused sponsorship money from companies it deems ‘unethical’ throughout its 20-year history.

On its website, the festival outlines how it refuses to take money from companies it believes pose a threat to the environment, social equity and respect for cultural traditions.

Founder and festival director Richard Sowada said the reason was two-fold: bad PR and maintaining personal ethics.

“It’s too dangerous in the marketing and comms of your event, you don’t want people abseiling into your opening night flapping banners around,” Mr Sowada told Business News.

“And number two, just what keeps you grounded in community and keeps you authentic and truthful to yourself and to the event?”

Mr Sowada said the festival’s stance had come at a financial cost.

“You suffer in the short term because you don’t get the money,” he said.

“You have to take a longer road around and you might never reach the scale of your contemporaries because you don’t have that money.

“For cultural events, that is life or death.”

Mr Sowada acknowledged Revelation’s stance had not always been appreciated by other organisations in the sector.

He said some creative collaborations with other arts organisations had ended because Revelation’s opinions had the potential to damage those organisations’ relationships with their sponsors.

“That exists, it happened to us recently,” Mr Sowada said.

“We are not grandstanding, we are not on a soapbox all the time, we reflect it in our programming quite honestly but it’s not something we go out waving a flag about … we just live by what we believe.”

He said he had seen artists withdraw from programs because of the companies sponsoring a particular event.

“Artists are most definitely making those decisions; I’ve seen it three times just within recent months with filmmakers and actual people who can draw a crowd and would have been paid to draw a crowd,” Mr Sowada said.

“They are making the decision to say ‘no’ because of the environment or say ‘yes’ because of where you stand in that ethical discussion.”

Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA executive director Rick Heath said Rio Tinto’s Juukan Gorge incident was a catalyst for the theatre to consider who they were partnering with and why.

The board and its partners have since developed an ethical partnership policy.

Mr Heath said all partnerships were based on values, but there were certain dealbreakers, including illegal activity and labour rights violations.

“Even if somebody doesn’t do any of those things that are a violation of human rights, we would still be looking for partners that have the same sense of values to us in terms of what they are trying to achieve,” he said.

“And to be perfectly honest, a partnership just isn’t going to work unless we are really strongly aligned on those things,” he said.

The theatre’s principal partner is Fortescue Metals Group, along with major partners Adina Apartment Hotels, Minderoo Foundation, Singapore Airlines and Wesfarmers Arts.

According to the Charities and Not for Profit Commission, Black Swan received $2.5 million from government grants, $2.4 million from operating revenues, and about $348,000 from donations and bequests in 2019.

Mr Heath said questions around the ethics of money used to make art had to be asked.

“I am wholly of the persuasion that, and this comes from a previous practice as well and not just this organisation, there’s a whole lot more to be gained to be in the tent than from throwing rocks from outside the tent,” he said.

“We are accountable to our audience, to our community we serve, to our artists, to our partners, our staff etcetera so it has to be part of the conversation.”

Another major arts organisation, Perth Festival, also recently began working on a formal ethical partnership policy.

“Certainly, we want to make sure the corporations we are partnering with operate ethically within the community, that they are causing no harm, that they are making a positive contribution,” Perth Festival executive director Nathan Bennett said.

“We are looking to formalise what we already had in place in a less formal fashion.”

Perth Festival received $2.7 million from private organisations in 2020, including Wesfarmers and Chevron, as well as money from government-owned businesses like Lotterywest.

The festival has been the target of protesters over its partnership with oil and gas company Chevron.

Chevron was a naming rights sponsor of a 16,000-person capacity live music venue last year, but Mr Bennett said the venue could not be built because of the COVID19 pandemic.

He said the festival respected the rights of its artists to put forward their views and would never seek to stop them from doing so, adding that organisations were listening to the concerns of their stakeholders.

“I think that arts organisations have their ears open to the community,” Mr Bennett said.

Fringe World Festival has faced similar criticism over its partnership with Woodside.

Artrage chief executive Sharon Burgess defended the partnership for the benefits it had brought to the festival and the independent artists in the community.

“It’s not my job to defend Woodside and their own policies or their responses to the protesters, they are more than capable of doing that themselves,” Ms Burgess told Business News.

“I will defend the partnership in respect to the benefits it has brought to the local artists, and it’s been that way for a number of years.”

Ms Burgess said the corporate sponsorship from Woodside helped the festival to go ahead this year as it was the only guaranteed funding it had in the planning stages, apart from state government funding.

She said the festival had a partnership policy to provide guidelines about which organisations it should partner with.

“We like to do business with the companies and organisations who have their hearts and minds in their appreciation embedded in WA as we do,” Ms Burgess said.

“We are continually reviewing that and looking at the alignment between the expectations of our stakeholders and our partnerships.”

Fringe World Festival made headlines in late 2020 for highlighting a clause in its contract that denoted artists should not bring the festival or its sponsorships into disrepute.

Artists suggested the clause amounted to a gag order.

Ms Burgess said the contract had not changed in several years and was standard practice.

Business News understands while the clause was not unusual and the contract had not changed from previous years, this year the clause was highlighted on the landing page of the artists’ portal.

To register a venue or an event, artists had to accept the conditions outlined.

“The policy notes that the presenter and the venue operator must use its best endeavours to not do any act or omit to do any act that would prejudice any of Fringe World’s sponsorship arrangements,” the website landing page reads.

“If you have an objection to a Fringe World sponsor, we ask that you consider whether participation in the festival is the right platform for your presentation.”

In response to the partnership arrangements of WA’s major festivals, a group of artists established an arts event called BRINK Festival.

The Fremantle-based festival will run from March 25 to 29 and will only accept sponsorship from companies with high environmental standards.

BRINK Festival founding member and performing artist Adam Bennett said he was finding it more and more difficult to accept fossil fuel companies’ sponsorship of arts festivals as climate change evidence increased.

“If you don’t really want to endorse that activity and actually feel like it’s a problem that you would like to continue to address in your work and the way you work in the world, then that just becomes more and more of an issue and a problem for people to take part and to be entertaining and to do work in good faith and in the right context,” Mr Bennett told Business News.

As there aren’t many alternative festival options in Perth, Mr Bennett decided to take matters into his own hands.

“I thought I should talk to some people and get some more beautiful alternatives started so that artists like me have a much better choice and have options available to us,” he said.

“Five months later, we are doing a little ethical, fossil-fuel-sponsorship-free Fringe called BRINK.”

The festival is contacting corporations and companies with high environmental standards and those that are part of the renewable energy industry.

So far, sponsors of the festival include the City of Fremantle, traffic monitoring company MetroCount, and mining compliance software business LandTrack Systems.

Around 10 acts are performing at the festival, including Richard Walley’s Six Seasons Featuring The Junkadelic Collective, and the band Le Mezz Club.

Writer Vivienne Glance is a founding member of the advocacy group Fossil Fuel Free Arts Network, which was established to reduce reliance on money from fossil fuel companies.

She said the group was planning a sector-wide conversation once the festival season had finished.

“There is a huge conversation to be had about ethical arts across the board; about how artists are treated, about how artists are rewarded, how practices are carried out, about insecure work, about transparency, all of that, it needs to be talked about,” Ms Glance said.

“But let’s do the most urgent one first, and that is to get fossil fuels out of the arts.”

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