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Sydney Festival suspends overseas government funding after Israel boycott furore

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The Sydney Festival board has suspended funding from international governments and their cultural agencies following an independent review conducted in response to a damaging boycott by artists earlier this year.

The boycott, which disrupted almost 30 shows and events in January, was sparked by the festival’s decision to accept $20,000 from the Embassy of Israel to stage Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s work Decadance.

Ahead of the program launch for next year, festival chair David Kirk apologised to everyone affected by the controversy that dogged director Olivia Ansell’s debut event and conceded it had dented the reputation of one of Sydney’s iconic cultural festivals.

The board announced what it described as a range of measures “to improve the decision-making process around partnerships and sponsorships”.

As well as immediately suspending all international government funding, these measures include developing a funding and sponsorship charter, strengthening its sources of advice on social and cultural issues and contributing to a wider conversation about the sources of financial support for the arts.

“There’s no doubt the arts are chronically underfunded in Australia,” Kirk said.

The board committed to accepting key findings of the review into “the role of international government investment”.

The organisers of the boycott said the partnership with Israel made the festival unsafe for people of Arab backgrounds and would “contribute to the normalisation of an apartheid state”.

Comedians Tom Ballard, Judith Lucy and Nazeem Hussain were among the artists who supported the boycott, while opponents included NSW arts minister Ben Franklin and, in an open letter, rocker Gene Simmons, film producer Emile Sherman and singer Deborah Conway.

The review panel was headed by the deputy chair of the Queensland Performing Arts Trust, Leigh Tabrett. It canvassed the views of almost 50 artists, partners, employees, the festival’s board members, its leadership team and representatives of other festivals and arts bodies.

The board said the panel’s findings would be confidential because information was collected “under the promise of anonymity to ensure that people felt comfortable sharing their experiences”.

But it summarised its key recommendations to support an industry conversation about the sources of financial support for the arts.

“Sydney Festival acknowledges that events leading up to and during the 2022 Festival could have been better managed to minimise the impact on artists, employees, partners, supporters and the wider community,” Kirk said.

“We sincerely apologise to all those affected … We have listened to what was said and we are acting on key findings.”

While rarely contentious, many high-profile arts festivals and events receive financial support from the likes of the United States Studies Centre, British Council, Japan Foundation and Goethe Institute.

Kirk said the board would revisit the role of international funding after approving the charter. He would not be drawn on whether it was wrong to accept the Israeli grant.

“We’re looking forward now,” he said. “We’re really focussed on getting our charter in place.”

The controversy led to high emotions during the festival.

At its close, Ansell accused activists of intimidating artists into boycotting the event.

“Some artists felt pressured to the extent they had no option but to withdraw, or else they would be publicly shamed online, whilst other artists had a very strong opinion, and one respects those strong opinions,” she said.

“That’s why we live in a democracy. In relation to the intimidation and pressure online: everyone has the right to feel safe, whether that’s physically, mentally or culturally. And I couldn’t say that everybody felt safe out there online during the height of the boycott.”

One of the boycott organisers, Fahad Ali, denied that artists had been pressured to withdraw and said communication with artists and the festival board had been respectful.

“We are campaigning against the festival’s complicity with apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and the military and economic intimidation that entails for the Palestinian people,” he said.

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Article source: The Age 28/9/2022

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000