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Making a pact with the devil

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Coal corporations, oil companies and casinos have money to spend on the arts. Should you steer clear or mine their deep pockets for every dollar?

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If the role of art is to disturb, not please, as Frie Leysen argued recently on ArtsHub, what happens when arts organisations delve into the pockets of the gambling sector, coal mining corporations or telecommunication companies? Do business partners with problematic agendas dampen the arts' drive to challenge societal structures and norms, or enable artists to flourish on their dollar?

At the Fifth Public Art Galleries Summit held in Bendigo, Anna Thurgood, Gallery Director, Artspace Mackay explored whether partnerships between galleries and coal mines is a pact with the devil or a match made in heaven.

In 2012, Artspace Mackay commissioned artist Danie Mellor to create two artworks commemorating Mackay’s 150th Anniversary of European settlement. In need of approximately $40,000 to secure the commission, the gallery received support of $20,000 from BMC, BHP Billiton’s coal arm.

This was not without wrestling a moral dilemma. Thurgood admitted she felt like a hypocrite. ‘Sponsorship funds are great, but they are coming from the largest coal miner in the world. And I’m sure that most people who work in art galleries are concerned about environment, like a lot of people are in society, and I know I am … So taking money from them didn’t sit comfortably.’

Despite the ethical dilemma, Thurgood come to the conclusion, ‘You’ve got to do what is good for your community and sort of get over yourself.

‘I have to say with my philosophical dilemma, you should get over yourself, and get over it. If you have access to funding that comes from the profits of mining, the truth is they are looking for organisations or projects to invest in the community, they need to do that, they know their impact on communities is huge and it’s not about me it’s about community.’

Tuning in with your community can be the difference between an enriching partnership for an arts organisation and one that is seen to be tarnished with ‘blood money.’

The severed ties between major sponsor Transfield and the Sydney Biennale as a result of artist-led boycotts is an example of the company’s affairs – in this case the management of offshore asylum seeker detention facilities –  being disconnected from the community’s interests.

Madeleine Dore

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