Is public money really cleaner than corporate money? Some reflections on the Sydney Biennale protests

The recent furore that has erupted around Sydney Bienniale artists rejecting corporate sponsorship brings to bear some important assumptions around the role of the artist in society, and how their activities are bankrolled.

In a nutshell, the Bienniale severed ties with sponsor Transfield Holdings as a protest against the corporation’s involvement in offshore detention centres. This has inspired a number of responses by government ministers. Most notably Arts Minister George Brandis threatened to pull funding from the event all together.

Interestingly, it seems that there is no currently existing legal or policy grounds for the minister to follow through on his threat, as reflected by his request to the Australia Council to formulate a policy to penalise organisations that refuse corporate sponsorship on “unreasonable grounds.” This should come as no surprise; the expectation that recipients of arts and cultural funding seek corporate sponsorship and improve revenue through growing audiences has been enshrined in cultural policy from Keating’s Creative Nation initiative 20 years ago.

More pertinent I think is Treasurer Joe Hockey’s seemingly innocuous observation that such a move is logically inconsistent, given that the Biennale relies on government for the lion share of its money and said government is also involved in offshore detention centres.

This raises the question: why do artists consider corporate dollars dirtier than public funding? Clearly the government consistently sees fit to invest in innumerable atrocities, including wars, prisons and detention centres, so why is its money deemed to be okay?

The answer, I think, lies in the misapprehension that Australia’s “arms length” system of funding allows artists to operate in an ideologically neutral zone, and create thought provoking and culturally pertinent art for the good of the public. It is an assumption that rests on the notion that art challenges political power, that it is practiced for the good of the public, and that it reflects the will of the public. 

Through my own research of SBS Independent as a publicly funded cultural institution, what was made abundantly clear was that no matter how well intentioned artists are, how much they aim to be a conduit of public debate, or to subvert State power from within its institutions, when artists receive money from government they ultimately become entangled within its bureaucracy and extend its reach and power within civic life. In order to qualify for “public” money, certain compromises need to be made and performance measures met. Ultimately, government’s only see fit to fund agendas that are consistent with their own, and which win public favour thereby securing their power into the future.

This means two things:
  • Government investments are not a direct reflection of the will of the public.
  • The content of art and creative labour practices is subtly transformed over time by this political, institutional and financial context. 
State financed art and culture is not, in other words an ideologically neutral zone located somewhere between public authority and private consumption. It is deeply embedded in both.

For alternative views on this topic see:


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