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Artists step up protests against fossil fuel companies' sponsorship of Perth festivals

The Guardian logo The Guardian 06/02/2020 Stephanie Convery
Photograph: Jessica Lutz/Reuters © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Jessica Lutz/Reuters

Artists and activists who oppose arts sponsorship from fossil fuel companies have said they intend to continue protesting as Western Australia’s leading international arts festival, Perth festival, prepares to open this week.

Artists have been staging protests around Perth’s annual fringe festival, Fringe World, calling for the organisation to end its eight-year sponsorship arrangement with oil and gas giant Woodside in light of the intensifying climate crisis.

Related: 'Australia's largest unsanctioned art show': guerrilla bushfire campaign hijacks bus shelters

Attention is likely to shift this week to the more upmarket Perth festival and its relationship with oil and gas company Chevron, which operates Australia’s largest onshore oilfield, among other projects.

The actions began in October last year, when a climate coalition of artists, activists and environmental organisations wrote to Sharon Burgess, CEO of Artrage Inc – the company that runs Fringe World – calling on the festival to terminate its relationship with Woodside.

Woodside has supported Fringe World since 2012. The festival is currently in the second of a three-year partnership with the company, which it lists as a “principal partner”. Artrage would not disclose the funding specifics of that arrangement, but arts companies tend to structure their partnerships in tiers, based upon the value of the sponsorship. Top-billed partnerships generally indicate the highest level of investment.

A coalition of artists, activists and environmental organisations has been protesting the involvement of Woodside in Fringe World and intends to do the same about Chevron’s sponsorship of the Perth festival. © Photograph: Jessica Lutz/Reuters A coalition of artists, activists and environmental organisations has been protesting the involvement of Woodside in Fringe World and intends to do the same about Chevron’s sponsorship of the Perth festival.

Artrage told Guardian Australia that Fringe World received a total of $1.4m in cash sponsorship and $2.5m of in-kind sponsorship in 2019. Woodside’s partnership includes naming rights to the main festival hub, its awards program, and prominent logo presentation on many of the festival’s marketing materials.

In her written response to the coalition on 22 October, Burgess said Fringe World’s priority was “supporting our artists and delivering a safe and friendly environment”.

“We respect everyone’s right to protest, and so long as protest does not impede with our priorities then there will not be any change in this respect,” she wrote.

The activist coalition had requested a meeting with Burgess, which was declined. The activists followed up with an email writing campaign in which more than 100 emails were sent to the festival.

In December, a cease and desist letter was sent from legal firm K&L Gates to the coalition on behalf of Artrage demanding they remove all Fringe logos and copyrighted property from their campaign material.

Perth festival, which opens on Friday, would not disclose details of its partnership with Chevron, but the company has naming rights for its festival hub and the festival claims that more than 2.3 million people have attended “Chevron-aligned festival events” since 2013.

The artists are concerned that the relationship between fossil fuels companies and arts organisations contributes to a “social licence” or “veneer of respectability” that normalises the dominance of fossil fuels companies in the face of climate crisis.

“For a lot of companies that do some more questionable things to the Earth … it’s in their best interests to saddle up with arts organisations … because it creates a different picture [of the company] in people’s minds,” artist and activist Ash Traylia told Guardian Australia.

Traylia was one of three artists who protested at Fringe World’s launch event in January, taking the stage in faux-medieval costume just before festival director Amber Hasler was due to speak, to read a statement on behalf of Fringe artists. “Our art [is being] tarnished and exploited as a multipurpose billboard for this corporation,” the statement said.

Follow-up protests around the Fringe festival drew hundreds of people. The artists told Guardian Australia there would be more actions to come.

“You’re hearing about two weeks of Indigenous art lined up at the Chevron Lighthouse,” said Traylia. “It has not sat well with me for a long time that there’s this weird disconnect [here].”

Artists who spoke to Guardian Australia said they observed widespread frustration in Perth’s artistic community about the “impossible choice” of operating ethically in a city in which money from the resource sector is one of the primary sources of arts funding, and in which opportunities for mid-level artists were limited to festival season, thanks to complex shifts in the economic landscape since the mining boom.

Related: The ecology student who pushed the RSC to cut ties with oil giant

“The independent venues that used to fit mid-tier artists dried up, so [we lost] the stepping stones that used to be available for young, independent artists,” writer and stand-up comedian Patrick Marlborough told Guardian Australia. “That combined with Perth itself being all but unaffordable.

“The arts have now been funnelled into a six-week ‘art zone’ experience, almost like a holiday, where we get it out of the way by March. For the rest of the year you’re really left grasping at straws.”

Traylia agreed: “I look at the future of myself as an artist in Perth and I think I’m going to have to either really fight to be able to exist in spaces where I can ethically operate and create or I’m just going to move away.”

Traylia said that there was a lot of fear in the sector about what speaking out might mean.

“Everyone’s frightened that the money’s gonna go and that we’re going to have no arts in Perth whatsoever,” she said. “A lot feel frightened, of course, around their careers and the opportunities that they might or might not have as a result of speaking out – biting the hand that feeds them.”

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