When money costs too much


Many artists have boycotted arts events and organisations over unethical funding and partnership concerns. But should this burden always be placed on artists alone, particularly when the ability to boycott is its own privilege?

Recently in Australia, the question of whether an artist should boycott an event, program or exhibition due to perceived unethical funding has come to the forefront in the arts. But is boycotting the only response? How do we balance sustainable art practices and integrity, under questionable funding models?

In a recent essay for Meanjin, writer and organiser Muhib Nabulsi expands on two highly publicised boycotting campaigns in 2021 and 2022, where artists revoked their participation in arts events due to unethical sponsorship. Nabulsi explains that the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is enjoying new visibility in so-called Australia.”

They continue, “The recent boycotts of Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF) and Sydney Festival have had a profound effect on the Australian arts landscape, with many in the industry wary of replicating these festivals’ disastrous responses to initial community requests and subsequent boycott campaigns alike.”

In 2022, this echoed across the festival circuit as artists and arts organisations became equally concerned about our climate future and began refusing problematic sponsorships, choosing to protest and boycott instead. Such movements have led to Santos ending its sponsorship of Darwin Festival, and Perth Festival dropping United States fossil fuel giant Chevron after a decade-long partnership. While these events reflect a refusal to participate in the “greenwashing” or “artwashing” of oil and gas companies, these decisions also have consequences for artists and arts workers.

Beyond monetary loss, which is exacerbated by our financially precarious arts industry, tensions also arise for those who choose to remain involved in festivals or projects funded by problematic entities—and this is often for reasons beyond an artist’s singular control. As boycotts have intensified, I have caught myself judging those who continue to work with organisations that I resolutely avoid. Yet my surface disapproval was erasing my deeper awareness that not all of us are able to refuse paid work from organisations with a dubious ethical standing.

This feeling reinforces a ‘right or wrong’ binary that obfuscates much needed systemic changes, instead of pushing people to choose a side. It assumes that left-wing progressive politics is enough to absolve artwashing. As Nabulsi laments, “With a distinct lack of political imagination, progressive politics asserts that the world’s political structures don’t need to be fundamentally transformed, just emptied of their current content, as if that were possible.”

Nabulsi’s perspective suggests the difficulty of demanding systemic transformation—and how focusing on protest can unconsciously uphold the very systems that maintain inequity. For instance, some artists may boycott festivals, institutions, and arts organisations believing that they will then empty these entities of their ‘immoral’ content. Structurally, however, nothing changes.

This also ignores the obvious, often racial and class-driven reasons, why others often from minority and working-class communities cannot always participate in the politics of refusal. Their livelihoods and careers are on the line. Expecting people to boycott or protest can miss broader opportunities to critique how systems like capitalism restrict people’s choices when placed in these situations.

While it is important to acknowledge that community action has led major festivals to cut environmentally and politically unsound funding, it is also vital to acknowledge how public judgement of involved artists arises.

An unspoken and unjust assumption is that all artists can refuse involvement with any association that is funded, sponsored, or partnered by questionable companies. This maintains the neoliberal centring of individual rather than collective action, allowing us to believe that we are all equal enough to lose income for the greater moral good. Such a myth causes distress for artists who are called out for continuing to participate in events like last year’s Sydney Festival, after it came under scrutiny for having Israeli funding.

Recently, in the Australian state most associated with mining, I was optimistic to attend the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA’s forum ‘Navigating Ethics in Arts Partnerships’ in Perth. I was eager to hear from others in the industry offering possible ways forward in an economic landscape marred by insecure funding and unliveable wages.

With diverse speakers from the arts as well as climate change academics, philanthropists, activists, and environmental consultants, the forum empowered people to make informed decisions about considering sponsorships or funding partnerships. The discussion provided important guidance for companies and institutions reliant on funding by offering decision-making matrixes which removed fossil fuel companies from the equation and provided information on mining companies that do less harm.

Meanwhile, others such as Nathan Bennett, executive director of Perth Festival, strongly advocated for new partnerships with government, which move away from precarious funding cycles and grants, pushing for financial support that could be reframed as investment in cultural tourism and increasing jobs. Overall, there was groundswell support to transition out of fossil fuel partnerships, believing that the art sector should unanimously commit to ending these partnerships by 2025.

This was affirming to witness. Yet people also reinforced the role of artists to critique and advocate for change, and I was again left wondering whether these artistic acts of protests are only available to practitioners who are well resourced—and further questioning what it means for artists to present political work within dubious funding arrangements.

There remain no clear answers but a myriad of complexity and ambiguous relationships to navigate. However, I remain comforted by a lasting remark from Eva Grace, a panellist and artistic director of Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company. She compassionately argued for greater understanding among artists on our difficult journey where mistakes are unavoidable, stating, “We have to be generous with each other.”

It’s an important reminder that judging people’s decisions to participate in platforms that you refuse often ignores the economic imbalances across the sector. As we all seek alternatives and solutions that reflect our integrity, it is vital to recognise this. We need to care for each other in a work environment that remains ripe with contradictions.

Opinion Words by Timmah Ball