Tobacco companies can’t sponsor Australian arts. Should fossil fuel giants be banned too?

A database shows almost two dozen arts organisations are still reliant on mining money – but some are hunting for alternatives

Pressure is building on arts and cultural institutions to sever ties with fossil fuel companies, with a number of Australia’s major arts companies still relying on sponsorship, while those operating in natural resource-rich states face the biggest challenges in securing alternative funding.

There are now at least two Australian-based organisations – Comms Declare and – that track down sponsorship deals and lobby arts, sporting, cultural and other not-for-profit and government institutions to abandon lucrative partnerships with coal, oil and gas companies.

A database created by shows that more than 400 organisations and institutions across all sectors in Australia remain reliant on fossil sponsorship, including almost two dozen music festivals and arts companies, among them the West Australia Symphony Orchestra, the West Australian Ballet, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and Perth festival.

Last month, in what is believed to be an unprecedented case, a coalition of philanthropists, artists and First Nations representatives offered Darwin festival a $200,000 funding deal if the festival cut ties with Santos. On the day the deal with the coalition was set to be discussed, the oil and gas giant pre-empted the move and announced it would not be renewing its sponsorship.

But the Guardian understands Darwin festival remains in protracted negotiations over the $200,000 offer, which includes a proviso that the festival board must give the naming rights of its opening night concert to the traditional owners of the greater Darwin region, the Larrakia nation. Both parties have agreed not to discuss the negotiation process with media while it is still under way.

On Wednesday, the volunteer group Comms Declare, which says it represents more than 360 organisations fighting the promotion of fossil fuel companies, launched its campaign to pressure the National Australia Day Council (NADC) to end its partnership with Chevron.

In a statement on Thursday Chevron said it would not be renewing its Australia Day sponsorship in 2023, and had informed the NADC of that decision in August. “We acknowledge there has been commentary about the support provided by the energy industry to arts and cultural programs and events, however, our decision is based on our focus to support the needs of the most vulnerable members of the communities where we live and work,” the statement said.

After 2023’s event, Chevron will no longer sponsor Perth festival, “after deciding to focus on other sponsorship opportunities in the WA community”, they announced in a statement last month. Its edgier festival cousin, Perth Fringe World, signalled in June that it was reviewing its principal sponsorship deal with Woodside after three consecutive years of protests. Weeks later it was revealed that Woodside had actually transitioned its sponsorship to the festival’s nonprofit parent company, Artrage.

Three artists protest against Woodside’s sponsorship at Fringe World’s launch event in Perth in January 2019
Three artists protest against Woodside’s sponsorship at Fringe World’s launch event in Perth in January 2019. Photograph: Miles Tweedie

‘It’s a question of ethics’

Comms Declare’s president and founder, Belinda Noble, said the aim of these campaigns is to see national advertising and sponsorship laws for fossil fuel companies become as restrictive as those placed on tobacco companies decades ago, with sporting, arts and cultural organisations being a priority.

According to a report released by Swinburne University last month, fossil fuel companies spend an estimated $14-$18m a year sponsoring elite sports. Recent controversies include Santos’s sponsorship of the Wallabies for its UK tour, and Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting pulling out of a $15m deal with Netball Australia.

“It is a question of ethics, and obviously there are shades of grey,” Noble told Guardian Australia. “But you have to ask, is it fair that these corporations are damaging our environment and way of life and still being allowed to co-opt the good name of artists and artistic institutions to support their dirty business? You have to ask, what are the ethics of helping promote an organisation whose product kills more people globally than tobacco?” Australia played a major role in the Woodside v Perth Fringe campaign. The organisation’s campaigns director, Kelly Albion, said they were continuing to lobby organisations and institutions holding on to these funding relationships. “All the momentum has started building recently, with more people talking about it in the sports space and also in the arts space,” she said.

Arts organisations in Western Australia still appear heavily reliant on largesse from companies such as Chevron and Woodside, she added. WA has the largest concentration of fossil fuel operations in the country.

Woodside continues to sponsor the West Australian Ballet, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and the West Australian Youth Orchestra.

A spokesperson for the state’s ballet company said it expected “to have clarity” on the issue of Woodside’s sponsorship by the end of next week. The state’s two orchestras did not respond to the Guardian’s queries.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra lists oil and gas exploration company Australia Pacific LNG as its principal partner. A spokesperson for the orchestra said its decade-long partnership with the corporation has enabled QSO to perform and connect with regional communities, “which otherwise wouldn’t occur”.

The Art Gallery of South Australia is similarly reliant on support from mining company BHP, a relationship that will continue until at least the end of 2024. BHP had been integral to the AGSA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander project Tarnanthi for the past seven years, a spokesperson for the gallery said.

“Projects are artist-led, with the artist always in control; deep listening and continual community consent is vital,” the spokesperson added.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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