Sydney festival to suspend foreign government funding after mass boycott

Israeli embassy funding overshadowed this year’s Sydney festival, leading to an independent review

Sydney festival has suspended all funding agreements with foreign governments and their cultural agencies, after a mass boycott by artists and audiences earlier this year.

The festival’s chair, David Kirk, announced the decision on Tuesday, after an independent review prompted by controversy over a sponsorship agreement with the Israeli embassy during the 2022 festival.

“We sincerely apologise to all those affected,” Kirk said in a statement.

“We have listened to what was said, and we are acting on key findings.”

The decision to accept sponsorship from the Israeli embassy was made at a management level.

Although the board only became aware of it when the festival program was published in December, Kirk told the Guardian on Tuesday, “the board takes responsibility and I take responsibility as the chairman.”

“We acknowledge that staff, artists, and the wider community [were put] into a position that was very uncomfortable for many people, and we very much regret that and apologise for it,” he told the Guardian.

“The review makes it clear that in terms of our communication and the policies and procedures we had in place, there were shortcomings, and the board was responsible for those shortcomings.”

The review canvassed almost 50 stakeholders including artists, partners, employees, the Sydney festival’s leadership team and the board, as well as other festivals and arts bodies.

It concluded that the festival needed to improve policies and procedures surrounding its sponsorship arrangements.

In December 2021, artists and producers engaged for the January 2022 festival began withdrawing after it was revealed the festival had accepted a $20,000 sponsorship from the Israeli embassy, to co-fund a Sydney Dance Company production featuring the work of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

An online protest and petition was led by a coalition of Arab and pro-Palestinian organisations, and artists and academics from diverse backgrounds.

Comedian Nazeem Hussain, visual artist Khaled Sabsabi, burlesque performer Betty Grumble, Malyangapa and Barkindji hip-hop artist Barkaa, the Bankstown poetry slam, and musician Marcus Whale were among the first acts to withdraw in protest.

By the eve of the festival’s opening in the first week of January, more than 20 acts had withdrawn, including comedian Tom Ballard, former NSW politician Meredith Burgmann, First Nations dance company Marrugeku and commentator Yumi Stynes. Some other productions went ahead but discarded the Sydney festival branding.

The festival board did not dissolve the agreement with the Israeli embassy at the time, but Kirk apologised and promised an independent review of all funding arrangements with embassies and cultural organisations for future festivals. Benjamin Law announced his resignation from the board the next day.

The suspension of agreements with foreign political entities is one of several recommendations made in the report, which also calls for the establishment of a funding and sponsorship charter to evaluate all future sponsorship, and an overhaul of the festival’s crisis management response policies.

Consultation with a more diverse pool of stakeholders over social and cultural issues tied to financial support of the festival was also recommended.

Kirk said the report’s key recommendations would be adopted, and said he did not believe the temporary suspension would affect the festival’s ability to attract international artists in 2023. The 2023 festival program will be announced in October.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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