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Ethics and Art Support

The ethics of arts support became a much debated topic because of an artworld controversy. The catalyst was the threat by some selected artists to withdraw their participation in the 2014 Biennale of Sydney because of the business activities of a major donor in winning a contract to provide services to refugee detention centres.

In response to the protest and its consequences, the then Federal Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis instructed the Australia Council to develop a policy which would make its funding conditional on artists or organisations not 'unreasonably' refusing to accept or continue private sector support.

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Resist: the cultural policy, APACA Conference, Oct 2011, image: Bohdan Warchomij

NAVA believes that the relationships between givers and recipients of private sector support are particular to every case and are based on mutual regard or benefit. The ethical standards which underpin the relationship need to be decided between the parties to the agreement, not by government.

However, as the peak body responsible for setting best practice standards for the industry, NAVA supports the initiative to try to offer guidance to the arts sector about what risk factors they might wish to take into account in entering into a relationship with either a private or public sector supporter.

NAVA contends that a policy which makes public funding conditional on the acceptance of private sector support could severely compromise members of the arts sector's ability to make their own decisions on ethical or any other grounds. Though there is a majority of companies and philanthropic individuals whose support would be and is greatly valued, some have programs which could be completely antithetical to the values and principles of the artists or organisations concerned.

Artists and art organisations must be granted freedom of choice as to what kinds of sponsors or philanthropists they allow their name, arts activities and reputation to be publicly associated with. To disallow artists or arts organisations the opportunity to exercise their right of refusal as a condition of government funding would seem entirely unreasonable.

The Australia Council was directed to work on new guidelines which were to be considered by the Minister. The outcomes are still not known.

During the process, NAVA offered advice to the Government, Australia Council and Ethical Arts, proposing that ethics experts should be involved in find effective ways of guiding the sector's thinking about this sensitive issue.

Depending on the outcomes, NAVA may distribute any ethical protocols developed to encourage artists, arts organisations and private sector arts supporters to use them.

In May 2014, NAVA organised a public forum in partnership with Sydney College of the Arts on the topic 'Money, Art and Ethics' with 5 speakers including a representative from the St James Ethics Centre.

This also will be the topic for a NAVA webinar to be held in at a date to be announced in 2016, one in a series of 'No Fear Forums' to be held roughly bi-monthly during the year.

Background

Recent debates over the ethics of private sector support for the arts were triggered by the actions of a group of artists who had been selected to participate in the 2014 Sydney Biennale but threatened to boycott the event because of their concerns over some of the activities of a company which provides support to the Biennale.

Reacting to this event and to the Arts Minister's directive to the Australia Council, a new group formed called Ethical Arts which has written an open letter to begin the process. of developing a set of guidelines around what needs to be considered in contemplating a privates sector relationship.

This work is being supported by Platform, a sister organisation in the UK doing similar things.

In developing the industry guidelines, some questions might be:

  • are there fundamental principles which should apply to any philanthropic or sponsor relationship?
  • should there be options?
  • what transparency obligations should be required in testing the borders of ethical acceptability?
  • who decides what is reasonable?
  • how should protocols be fostered to encourage take-up by those forging these relationships?

Take Action

Some concerned artists in WA have formed a group called Ethical Arts Resource to develop a policy for private sector support, for possible application across the sector.

You might wish to be involved by joining Ethical Arts Resource. Contact info@ethicalarts.net.