Clash of cultures as arts festival ditches sponsor

The relationship between sponsor and event has always been a balancing act. The event is often reliant on the sponsor for its very existence but if the sponsor’s values don’t match those of the event it’s going to cause problems.

This often delicate balancing act was brought into focus after a recent ‘conscious uncoupling’ between Perth’s Fringe World and its principle sponsor mining firm Woodside.

The decade long relationship has always been strained given the clash of cultures with Fringe World’s brand of edgy art jarring with the fossil fuel corporate giant.

The situation came to head in January after ongoing protests by artists over accusations festival’s organiser Artrage had forced participants to sign gag orders which prohibited them from criticising any of the festival’s sponsors.

Artrage has since announced it would ditch Woodside as a principal sponsor for the festival, with the mining firm losing its naming rights for the main festival hub.

While the announcement appeased some, it was more sleight of hand than moral victory with Woodside transitioning to become a sponsor of Artrage itself to enable the not-for-profit organisation “to build a robust philanthropic program” of sponsors in future.

“As the third-largest arts organisation in the state, Artrage needs to achieve its philanthropic potential so that we can become a more sustainable organisation with a diversified and balanced income portfolio,” Artrage chief executive Sharon Burgess told The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Artrage is not in the business of making political statements or taking a stance on the subject [of fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts]; we will leave that up to our artists.”

Burgess said the new arrangement allowed Fringe World artists to “voice their opinions without compromise”.

Daniel Kalms, Woodside’s senior vice president, corporate and legal, said the new deal will “deliver a significant flow-on benefit for culture in the state”.

“We remain committed to our long-standing association with the arts and creative sector, bringing energy and vibrancy to the West Australian community,” he said.

This dilemma faced by Artrage is not new; in 2014 the Sydney Biennale cut ties with sponsor Transfield over its detention centre controversy. But with today’s hyper sensitivity over many issues particularly involving climate change, combined with the power of social media, festivals and events are going to be faced with this challenge for a while yet.