The Biennale of Sydney and long-time arts benefactor Luca Belgiorno-Nettis are embroiled in a controversy not of their own making, and the event hasn’t even started. By Mike Seccombe.

Biennale of Sydney patron Luca Belgiorno-Nettis under fire

In one day this week, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis made more money than most of us will see in a lifetime. The share price of Transfield, the company his father started, soared almost 25 per cent.

The spike on Monday followed the announcement that the company had won a $1.22 billion, 20-month contract to take over the running of the Manus Island immigration detention centre, in addition to its existing contract, entered in 2012, for the centre on Nauru.

It’s good news for a company that has had a bumpy ride over recent years, and for the shareholders. But for Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, the episode also serves to sharpen the horns of the dilemma on which he finds himself.

On one hand, he pronounces himself pleased at the sudden increase in his fortunes; on the other, it serves to underline his part in what critics call “a chain of connections that links to human suffering”.

And that is highly problematic, because those critics include many artists who were to take part in the upcoming Biennale of Sydney, Australia’s largest visual arts event, which begins on March 21. The biennale was started in 1973 by Belgiorno-Nettis’s father, Franco, and is still part-funded by Transfield and Belgiorno-Nettis money.

Quite suddenly, the biennale faces
a very hard choice; it can either keep all its funders or all its artists. But not both.

The biennale’s problem began on February 17 when Zanny Begg, an artist and refugee advocate, but not a biennale exhibitor, convened a meeting of 100 or more members of the arts community – including several people in the biennale – to discuss the possibility of a boycott of the event over the Transfield relationship. 

On February 19, 37 artists, of whom more than one-third were to exhibit, wrote an open letter to the biennale board asking the organisation to withdraw from its sponsorship agreement with Transfield. 

A further two days later, after discussions with members of the artists’ working group, and a meeting of the biennale board (in which Belgiorno-Nettis did not take part), the organisers issued a tactfully worded response, saying that while the board could “truly empathise with the artists in this situation” it would not dump Transfield. It suggested the artists express their objections to immigration policy through their work.

Since then, things have escalated. A presentation about the biennale to be given by its artistic director Juliana Engberg at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne on Monday night was cancelled ahead of
a planned protest against Transfield.

In a message sent to all ticket holders, the ACCA felt the need “to make clear that ACCA is in no way connected to Transfield”. 

The same night the City of Sydney council, which also has a $900,000, six-year sponsorship agreement with the biennale, debated the issue of the Transfield sponsorship, although it rejected a motion expressing concern about the link.

On Wednesday, five artists announced they had “revoked our works, cancelled our public events and relinquished our artists’ fees”, and were pulling out. And they warned: “Our withdrawal is one action in a multiplicity of others, already enacted and soon to be carried out in and around the biennale.”

There is a strong likelihood, according to members of the working group, that more artists will follow them out.

Meanwhile, others, such as the Refugee Action Coalition, are joining the protest. Targeting the ferries that take patrons to that part of the biennale staged on Cockatoo Island has been mooted. The symbolism is obvious: stop the boats.

It’s all very sad for the biennale organisers, and in particular for Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who even the activists agree is far from being your average corporate sponsor. He is chairman of the biennale board; he is emotionally invested in the event, through the 40-year family connection.

Furthermore, he has no direct link with Transfield Services, the public company making such a big buck from the government’s punitive asylum-seeker policy. His private company, Transfield Holdings, is a minority shareholder, with a stake of about 12 per cent in the listed company. It has, he stresses “no influence on the public company’s business”.

Nor does Transfield Services have any direct link with the biennale, which gets money through a third entity, the Transfield Foundation, jointly set up in 2011 by the public and private company “to concentrate the philanthropy of both corporates”. 

Out of a budget of about $10 million for this year’s biennale, just $600,000 comes from Transfield interests. Two-thirds of that is sourced to Transfield Holdings and the Belgiorno-Nettis family. The other third comes from the foundation.

So even if one defines “Transfield money” broadly, it amounts to six per cent of the biennale’s funding. If one defines it more narrowly, as money coming more directly from the company with the detention centre contracts, it comes down to one or two per cent.

All this brouhaha, over a couple of hundred thousand dollars? 

Belgiorno-Nettis bristles at the idea. To suggest that Transfield Services, and by extension the biennale, is tainted because of such a minor and indirect association, he says, “is in my view not only simplistic, but offensive and misleading”.

Strong words, but then he has strong views about misleading arguments, marshalled in support of simplistic solutions – not just in this case, but in relation to contemporary political debate in general. 

He is troubled by the limited faith young people have in democracy, the glib sloganeering that masquerades as debate, the opinion polls encouraging people to express opinions in the absence of knowledge, by powerful vested interests exercising undue influence – by the realisation that the “hitherto venerable institution” of free and fair elections really amounts to an exercise in gathering what he calls a “mob majority”.

His concerns led him, 10 years ago, to set up the newDemocracy Foundation to explore ways to make our system of democratic decision-making work better. All the research and experience since then has pushed him in one direction. “The jury is the model,” he says.

Imagine, if you will, a process involving a group of ordinary people presented with all the available evidence on a matter of public policy, and asked to reach a consensus.

His organisation has put together such “juries” on about half a dozen occasions. At the request of the NSW government, two panels – one urban, one rural – were assembled to wade through hundreds of submissions on the future of NSW energy generation, and deliver detailed recommendations to Parliament.

It wasn’t so much that these lay panels reached many of the same conclusions as the experts of the Productivity Commission that pleased Belgiorno-Nettis, as the sensible and methodical way they approached the task.

It’s much better to have this kind of informed public opinion put before government, than the knee-jerk reactions of focus groups. And much more likely, he says, to inspire public confidence in an outcome when people know it was reached by their peers. 

The whole idea behind the newDemocracy Foundation, says Belgiorno-Nettis, is to encourage thoughtful deliberation and judgement, instead of conflict. 

Which is ironic given his current circumstances, in the middle of the most intractable conflict of the past decade.

Even among the protesting artists there is sympathy for Belgiorno-Nettis and his good intentions. ‘‘Of course I’m sorry for him,” said one. “But I’m more sorry for the asylum seekers.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2014 as "The art of money".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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