Biennial News Australia

Artists threaten to boycott Biennale of Sydney

The exhibition’s main sponsor is contracted to provide service to the government’s controversial detention centres for asylum seekers

The Turner Prize-winner Martin Boyce is among the artists to sign an open letter to the Biennale board

The Biennale of Sydney has been forced into crisis mode just weeks ahead of its 21 March opening, as local and international artists threaten to pull out of the event or embed protest statements within their Biennale art works.

On Thursday 19 February, 35 of the 90 Biennale artists submitted a letter to the board, citing their moral abhorrence that a major sponsor of the event, the Sydney-based company Transfield, is earning profits from the Australian Government’s controversial policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers. The signatories, which include the Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Boyce along with other international and Australian artists, have asked the board to drop Transfield as a sponsor and find new backers.

Transfield is contracted to the government to provide garrison support, security and welfare services to Manus and Nauru islands in Papua New Guinea, where those seeking asylum in Australia are sent to be detained and processed.

Earlier this week, violence on Manus Island resulted in one man’s death and many other serious injuries, sparking fresh claims that the Australian Government’s mandatory detention policy is an abuse of human rights and a breach of international law.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who chairs the Biennale of Sydney, is an executive of Transfield. His father Franco Belgiorno-Nettis was a founder of the Biennale in 1973 and Transfield has been intricately linked with the event ever since. Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, Luca’s brother, is president of trustees at the Art Gallery of NSW, which is a major venue for the Biennale.

The current crisis at the Biennale began on 4 February, when the Sydney-based academic Matthew Kiem called for a general boycott of the event. This followed Transfield’s announcement that it was extending its involvement with the mandatory detention centres by taking over welfare services, including education, which were previously supplied by the Salvation Army. Critics claimed that Transfield was not qualified to provide such services.

Update: The Biennale board met today and has released a statement, saying it would stand by its sponsor. “We unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family—and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale—must override claims over which there is ambiguity,” the statement says. “It is this board’s duty to act in the interests of the Biennale and all its stakeholders—our audiences, government partners, staff, benefactors and sponsors, along with all Biennale artists and the broader arts sector. On the one hand, there are assertions and allegations that are open to debate. On the other, we have a long-term history of selfless philanthropy, which has been the foundation of an event that has served the arts and wider community for the past 40 years.”

More from The Art Newspaper


27 Feb 14
15:58 CET


I love what Scott Redford said about the state on art. Being rejected by many galleries I now view as a compliment to my artistic path! Since I am unknown, I ill dare to put a contact info here! or or my political art: about the art response I had after a delayed reaction to Levaquin that ruptured two Achilles tendons and left me with permanent pain whose suffering induced me to produce deep, real real real art that few would want to ever purchase but I don't care. It's real. paul cahan,

25 Feb 14
17:36 CET


Just saw ACCA had to cancel a Biennale event because of a perceived protest. Keep up the pressure guys they are running scared. The people I have told this story to in Berlin are absolutely gobsmacked. You see the Germans know about detention camps! Gee the opening of BOS will be something. Armed guards, police, the army? Ha, it's funny how the house of cards of contemporary art comes tumbling down. And what exactly is contemporary art anyway? The most tired bunch of cliches known to human kind. The same video art, the same so called installation art, the same lame and hollow appeal to an empty poetics to make the upper classes feel warm and cozy. I've worked in Australian art for 30 years at high levels and I can vouch for the fact that it's full of the most venal and morally bankrupt people. And always the same people who just move from job to job as Australia is so small they have nowhere else to go. I say just stop it all now. Art will still happen without the money. It has forever

23 Feb 14
20:56 CET


There is no creativity or art in Transfield's complicit and murderous approach to human rights in Australia. It's the same story as McDonalds being a sponsor of the Olympics. Our nation is facing a crisis of ethics and morals. Its the artists role to step up, speak out and show solutions to these draconian heartless beasts that are running this country and the world. Who else can be a bridge for discussion and critique.?

23 Feb 14
20:57 CET


Both these comments have truth. However I wonder if even politically right leaning artists would support what's happening in Manus. But true an artist who does support the Abbott Government should do a work. And yes the artists and art goers should just give up on the event full stop. But Richard Bell is actually in support of the Biennale and is walking both sides of the street like a true Uncle Tom. I personally find it outrageous that the Biennale board and trying to smooth this over. They are saying just accept Transfield's profit making and make the art! Look at the art with your mind half shut! Imagine if we were asked to look at Aboriginal art and not think of their degraded situation that White Australia caused? Imagine if we watched Putin's Winter Olympics without thinking about the suppression of opposition he dictates. What the BOS Board and certain members of the Australian art world ask us to do is untenable. We actually don't need contemporary art. Art will always happen.

22 Feb 14
0:24 CET


I don’t see what the fuss is about. It is a bipartisan Govt policy (supported by both Labor and Liberals), supported by a majority of Australians (although admittedly a minority in the arts community). If some artists are personally offended by Transfield then they should just boycott the thing already. Not a huge deal and I am sure the show would go on. Heck, call me and I'll make a work. That said, I think it would be very interested to see a contemporary artist who supported the position of the Govt and made a work accordingly. Now that would get the art world talking and perhaps be much more dangerous than anything notorious australian Richard Bell has ever done!

22 Feb 14
0:27 CET


It looks an opportunist act from the protesting artists to participate on this Biennale then, their protesting act will be more on view if they decide not to participate as this will account as a real and genuine protesting act. If an artists doesn't agree with the fair or any of their sponsors, it is more authentic not to show in the Biennale. But it looks opportunist to participate on the Biennale and then protest against it or one of the major sponsors, which looks an act of opportunism to make noise and have an opportunistic to attract the press.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this