PRINT May 2019


Screen capture from A Centre for Everything’s interactive Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence and Lumps of Coal, 2019.

IN 1971, Hans Haacke set out to expose two decades of unscrupulous activities by one of New York City’s biggest slumlords. Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 employed methodologies and styles familiar to Conceptual art to illuminate, and thus put pressure on, the deceptions that undergird modern economic power. Haacke made it for his solo show that year at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which was canceled six weeks before the opening.

The contest between artists and institutions over mechanisms of support was hardly new when Haacke made his piece. But he moved the needle on art’s role in challenging the conditions of its presentation and possibility. Since then, advances in the distribution of information have made financial connections easier to uncover and share, encouraging more artists to mobilize their skills and platforms to create just institutional models. It’s not uncommon now for artists to track personal investment portfolios to find connections among banks, businesses, cultural patrons, public institutions, and the environment.

A Centre for Everything, a fluid group of art activists headed by Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster, recently investigated such relationships to expose a chain of investments and dividends related to the fossil-fuel industry. Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence and Lumps of Coal, 2019 (exhibited this spring at Melbourne’s Monash University Museum of Art), illustrates, via a visually appealing matrix of colored lines, information gleaned from a laborious synthesis of public annual reports. The goal was to reveal how some patrons’ financial and political interests were clearly at odds with the ethical objectives of the communities and artists being supported.

The work seems to connect to de Vietri’s involvement with the 2014 Biennale of Sydney, for which I was artistic director, and from which she resigned when the event became the focus of intense protests. In the lead-up to the Biennale, Transfield Services—the then-public offshoot of Transfield Holdings, the event’s longtime primary sponsor—won a major contract to manage the mandatory offshore refugee-detention centers run by the Australian government on Manus and Nauru islands. (At that point, the Biennale’s chair, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, was a director of Transfield Holdings; his father founded both the company and the Biennale.) The government’s contravention of human rights in these centers shames all Australians.

The goal of A Centre for Everything was to reveal how some patrons’ financial and political interests were clearly at odds with the ethical objectives of the communities and artists being supported.

De Vietri became a main proponent of the protest, but she was by no means alone—nearly half of the Biennale’s participating artists sought to demonstrate solidarity with asylum seekers and promote awareness of this human tragedy by signing a letter expressing concerns about the links between the Biennale and Transfield and requesting the immediate severance of this sponsor relationship.* The staff, the management, and, to a large extent, the Biennale’s board shared these concerns. But the board’s initial reaction—in which it cited its loyalty to the Biennale’s founding family, a perceived “ambiguity” in the artists’ claims, and Transfield’s history of financial generosity—was hard-line. This pushback, combined with the board’s unwillingness to enter into a dialogue with the Biennale’s participants, further angered the artists, spurring some to boycott Australia’s flagship cultural event. Projects that were installed had to be dismantled and venues swiftly recalibrated. This interrupted schedules and raised costs.

The titular phrase in de Vietri’s Maps of Gratitude might nod toward the then minister for communications, Malcolm Turnbull, who responded to the artists’ call for a boycott of the Biennale by publicly accusing them of “sheer vicious ingratitude.” Turnbull argued that a boycott would not deter the government from its policy of mandatory detention for refugees: “I hope the Biennale can survive but I think the artists that have done this have potentially driven a stake, not through the asylum seeker policy, I can assure you of that, but through the heart of the Biennale itself.” The “ingratitude” he meant was the perceived insult to the chairman, his father, and the Belgiorno-Nettis family, which had supported the Biennale financially for decades through their business and foundation. It is not easy to end a forty-one-year relationship with a sponsor.

The campaign escalated, and activists from other fields joined in. Civility descended into vileness. The artist groups splintered. Some felt they were being bullied into boycotting when all they wanted was to register their concern via letter. Members of the Biennale’s staff were accosted and verbally abused by protesters. Artists came under pressure from patrons—and one another—to pick a side. The chair’s family was attacked on social media. The board fractured.

My role, I believed, was to support the artists and my team on whichever path they chose. I attempted to inform the board of our discussions and to counsel the chair. I used every speaking opportunity to spread awareness of the plight of asylum seekers. By the time fifteen of the forty-six artists who had signed the letter had confirmed their intention to withdraw and another was poised to do so—a deliberate campaign of slow hemorrhaging—the board had acknowledged that the Biennale was in crisis. After consulting with a communications group, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis decided he could not accede to severing his ties with Transfield. He tendered his resignation as chair of the Biennale instead, effectively ending the exhibition’s official relationship with the company. Happy about that gesture, however symbolic, thirteen of the boycotting artists returned. Some asked to be relocated from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, as the venue had also received significant support from Transfield Holdings through its own chair, Guido Belgiorno-Nettis (Luca’s brother). Ultimately, only two artists, de Vietri and Charlie Sofo, carried out the boycott.

True to Turnbull’s prediction, the Australian government has not changed its detention policy. If anything, in the immediate wake of the Biennale protest, it seemed to harden its stance. Australia’s arts organizations appeared to hear the protesters—many talked about introducing charters of ethical investment into their constitutions. Yet the consequences for the Biennale, having disengaged from its founding sponsor, continued to unfold. Several candidates for artistic director of the Twentieth Biennale of Sydney withdrew their interest. The board entered a period of reconfiguration; the chairperson changed three times in quick succession. Many skilled and knowledgeable staff decided their time with the organization had come to an end. Supporters felt bruised and wary of the risk of association. Neverthe-less, the door was opened to a new lead patron, the Nielson Foundation, and the tranche of supporting businesses and individuals has since strengthened. Transfield, and its role as founding donor, is still acknowledged in the Biennale materials. Transfield Services no longer provides security on Manus and Nauru islands—although, at the time of writing, nearly five hundred refugees are still being held on Manus island, having been relocated to a new holding facility in 2017, after the Papua New Guinea government declared it unlawful to detain refugees and closed the Australian government’s center. Some asylum seekers have been offered status in Papua New Guinea; others are being gradually assessed for transfer to the US or returned to their countries of origin. It remains the express policy of the Australian government that none of the detainees ever be settled in Australia.

A Centre for Everything, along with many other artists and groups who aim to expose ethically compromising financial entanglements, has put arts organizations on notice. Gabrielle de Vietri recently led a successful protest at the National Gallery of Victoria against its contract with Wilson Securities, which, like Transfield Services, is involved in the plight of refugees in Australian detention centers. Amid rising pressure from Nan Goldin’s influential campaign against the Sackler family’s United States pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma (which makes the prescription opioid OxyContin), the National Portrait Gallery in London recently declined the family’s £1 million sponsorship. Other institutions soon followed suit. [See Christopher Glazek’s article, pp. 206.] The ever-widening concern about compromising links between money and culture is obviously laudable. It also creates a potentially vexed situation. Most wealth comes from businesses and investments, which, if you dig deep enough, are connected to capitalism’s knotted chain of exploitation, pollution, and human misery. The story is not over yet.

Juliana Engberg was artistic director of the Nineteenth Biennale of Sydney. She is curating “Angelica Mesiti ASSEMBLY” for the Australian Pavilion at the Fifty-Eighth Venice Biennale. 

*The artists’ open letter to the Board of Directors of the 2014 Sydney Biennale is accessible here.