Sydney festival chair, David Kirk, has described the board’s failure to grasp the potential ramifications of accepting funding from the Australian Israeli embassy, which sparked a mass walk out of artists, as “just a miss”.
In an interview with Guardian Australia on Thursday, Kirk issued a public apology, saying he regrets the distress to artists that the controversy over the sponsorship decision had caused.
Kirk admitted that the festival board was unaware of the sponsorship deal until he noticed the Israeli government logo on the festival program in late November.
But he rejected the suggestion this amounted to either a failure in communication between management and the board, or a failure to recognise whether a risk assessment was needed.
“It was just a miss,” he said. “We followed all of our normal processes.
“And the next question becomes… are your normal processes fit for purpose in the current environment? And that’s something that we’re going to look into in the independent review that we have confirmed and absolutely committed to undertaking.”
Kirk said a yet-to-be-appointed independent two-member panel would launch the review as soon as the festival concludes later this month. But he would not say whether the festival would cease accepting sponsorships from foreign governments in the future.
“We don’t want to preempt the review,” he said.
“We just need to make sure it’s independent. The board has already had discussions about the broad nature of it … and we will work with [the independent reviewers] on the terms of reference, and get on with it as soon as the festival is over.”
But neither he, the festival’s director Olivia Ansell, or anyone else would be resigning over the issue, Kirk said.
Kirk also rejected the suggestion that the way to quell dissent among festival participants and the wider community might be to return the $20,000 sponsorship to the Israeli government.
“That’s not something we think is appropriate in the circumstances,” he said.
“I think if we had understood, had the foresight to realise that this would be the sort of issue that it has become, then we would have had detailed discussions and we would have considered what the best way forward was, but we didn’t.
“We are very sorry for the fact that we put artists in a situation where they felt compromised or have been pressurised, and have either been in a position where they’ve felt the need to withdraw their work or continue with their work [and] have been subjected to pretty serious social media pressure to withdraw.
“We really regret that. We accept that we caused that and the review that we intend to undertake is focused on ensuring this ever happens again.”
The money was to fund a Sydney Dance Company production of Decadence, devised by Tel Aviv choreographer Ohad Naharin, and an invitation-only Q&A session hosted by the Israeli embassy at the Opera House during the 2022 festival. The latter did not go ahead because of concerns over Covid-19.
An Israeli embassy spokesperson told the Guardian on Wednesday that Ansell approached the embassy with the sponsorship proposal in early July.
A festival spokesperson told the Guardian “management approached the embassy in the second half of last year”.