A delegation of First Nations people are expected to join a collective of artists and creative producers on Thursday to protest a controversial sponsorship deal between the Darwin festival and gas and oil company Santos.
The call to dump the longstanding fossil fuel sponsorship was included in an open letter sent on Tuesday to the festival’s board, chaired by former Northern Territory Airports chief executive Ian Kew, along with a petition of about 200 signatures. The protest coincides with the launch the festival’s 2022 program, running from 4 to 21 August.
The open letter said Santos’s ongoing involvement with the festival, including naming rights to the event’s opening night free concert at Darwin’s Amphitheatre, was adversely affecting the festival’s cultural integrity and amounts to “artswashing” – the same allegation levelled at Woodside last year over the energy company’s sponsorship of Perth’s fringe festival.
The open letter made comparisons to the tobacco industry’s marketing model of previous decades.
“In the same way that once the science on tobacco smoking harm became clear its promotion has been widely abandoned from public life, so too fossil fuel sponsorship and messages promoting its expansion has no place in our arts, culture and public institutions now that the world is all too aware of its catastrophic consequences,” the letter said.
The campaign highlighted the push by Santos to establish fracking practices in the NT despite opposition from some First Nations people – traditional owners from Larrakia (Darwin and surrounds), Tiwi Islands and the Beetaloo Basin, who are also involved in the sponsorship protest.
Japan’s largest oil and gas company, Inpex, is also a festival sponsor. Campaign organisers have demanded the festival board “take a leading role in climate action and abandon all promotional partnerships with fossil fuel companies”.
“We don’t think [dropping Santos sponsorship] is too much of an ask,” film-maker Alex Kelly, a co-convener of the protest, said.
“We’re not asking anyone to boycott the festival. We love the festival. There’s not a lot of opportunities to showcase artists in the Northern Territory.
“But we want the festival to develop a clear public policy on where they stand on ethical sponsorship.”
The Darwin festival board responded in a written statement to the Guardian on Wednesday, confirming it had received the protest letter and acknowledging the concerns expressed within it.
“While there are already contractual commitments in place for this year’s festival, the board has met with representatives of the concerned artists and has agreed to meet with them again, and other key stakeholders, after this year’s festival to discuss its future funding options,” the statement said.
A Santos spokesperson said the company had been supporting the Darwin festival for more than quarter of a century.
“It is part of our commitment to support the communities where we live and work,” they said.
“In the territory, we employ more than 100 local workers and we have spent $20m buying goods and services from 60 local suppliers this year.”
Santos said it was “a corporate leader in climate action with a clear climate transition action plan and a target of net zero scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2040”.
The call for arts, cultural and sporting events to drop sponsorship deals with fossil fuel companies has grown momentum over the past 12 months.
Earlier this year Tennis Australia relented to protests over a multi-year partnership deal with Santos, after becoming the target of “sportswashing” allegations.
In January this year, the 2022 Tour Down Under cycling event faced calls to dump its Santos sponsorship, after the company’s chief executive, Kevin Gallagher, defended its bid to open up new gas fields, saying there was currently “no alternative” to fossil fuels.
After protests at last year’s Perth fringe world festival, the event’s organiser, Artrage, appeared to distance itself from a long-running relationship with Woodside, saying the sponsorship arrangement had reached an “out of contract” stage.
Facing similar protests in the UK, the National Portrait Gallery and BP made a joint announcement in February that their 30-year partnership deal, including sponsorship of a major annual portrait prize, would cease at the end of the year.