The arts in Australia need to break up with fossil fuels

In her book Arts Wash: Big Oil and the Arts, British writer and Liberate Tate organiser Mel Evans defines artwashing as the process by which large oil companies clean up their dirty image through a public-relations approach mediated by cultural philanthropy. Artwashing is an extension of the notion of greenwashing, where companies feign green credentials to build credibility for their brand and generate social capital. Evans asks:

How is it that there is a gap between all these harmful impacts that oil companies like BP have through their daily activities around the world and our acceptance of them as part of our lives? A big part of what happens in that gap is artwash – the way in which oil companies project a better image of themselves to the public through their associations with cultural institutions and sport and their social license to operate.

Artists and the arts sector need to take a hard look at the kind of social license we are granting the fossil fuel industry and weigh that up with our contract with the audiences and communities we serve.

There are significant parallels here to the ways in which tobacco advertising was once commonplace and is now seen as unacceptable. Activists, doctors and campaigners worked to ensure stricter controls of tobacco advertising as the public health impacts became clear. The health impacts of the climate emergency are vast and are set to impact everyone on the planet—far beyond the damage tobacco has caused—so of course the same advertising standards should apply to fossil fuel companies.

In their 2019 project Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence and Lumps of Coal, arts collective The Centre for Everything mapped the web of relationships between the fossil fuel sector and the arts in so-called Australia. The web is so busy that the diagram the artists created to map the links between organisations, boards, directors, festivals and funding has little blank space and is a mass of lines, nodes and connections.

As she walks us through the map in the video that accompanies the project, Gabrielle de Vietri—who is now the Mayor of the City of Yarra—asks:

What about the impact on the arts? It’s not just about money. These associations to people and brands inform the culture of our institutions. From the way the workplace operates to which artists are supported. They can influence who tells a story and influence our shared culture. Are we still willing to accept their money and their governance and in exchange grant them, the fossil fuels industry, their social license to operate?

Darwin Festival, one of the largest festivals in the Northern Territory (NT), takes place in the tropical dry season. It hosts some incredible work from First Nations artists from across the Territory and opens with a free concert featuring First Nations artists from across the continent, an event which is sponsored by oil and gas producer, Santos. 51 per cent of the land of the Territory is under active exploration licenses for gas fracking; Santos is a major permit holder and one of the most advanced in these explorations.

The relationship between Darwin Festival and Santos is emblematic of art-washing in the Australian arts context, and is particularly devastating in a First Nations cultural context. As well as accruing social capital, the Santos money silences communities by putting First Nations artists in a position where they have to choose between backing campaigns in their communities opposed to fracking and staying quiet to take up the opportunity to perform in the largest creative showcase in the Territory. 

The forced relationship between First Nations artists and the fossil fuel sector brokered by the festival is particularly exploitative when so many historical and contemporary examples of fossil fuel extraction occur on First Nations lands and in proximity to communities, deeply impacting traditional culture and dividing communities over its impacts, risks and limited monetary reward.

There has been a consistent campaign by Territory artists, audiences and arts sector organisations since 2015—when the first open letter was published—calling on Darwin Festival to break ties with gas companies. The campaign has included securing commitments to replace fossil fuel producers with ethical sources of philanthropic funding to ensure that artists and audiences don’t miss out if fossil fuel ties are cut. So far, Festival organisers and their corporate and government backers have yet to respond to these offers, and have even increased fossil fuel sponsorship in recent years bringing Japanese oil and gas company Inpex into the mix.

Further south, in Western Australia, climate activists had a victory earlier this year, when they managed to get the Perth Fringe to terminate its sponsorship by Woodside Petroleum. The campaign lobbied for the event to break ties with the company, and in June they celebrated when it was announced that Woodside would no longer have naming rights. Barely a few weeks passed before Woodside and Artrage, the event’s producer, announced a new philanthropic partnership.

The Western Australia arts and cultural sector are inextricably linked with the extractive industries. The Guardian reports that there ’it is impossible for arts companies to completely wean themselves off sponsorship from the fossil fuels sector.’ Author Mark Naglazas continues:

Woodside is also a sponsor of Barking Gecko Theatre, Yirra Yaakin, the WA Symphony Orchestra and WA Ballet. Fortescue Metals Group supports Black Swan Theatre Company; BHP is the principal partner of Awesome Arts; Chevron has the naming rights for Perth festival’s music strand (also targeted by activists); Tianqi Lithium is the naming sponsors of a gallery of the new WA museum Boola Bardip; and Rio Tinto is the premium partner of CinefestOZ.

The underlying value of these sponsorships is that they ‘offset’ the low levels of tax paid by fossil fuel companies compared to their profit base. In truth, if they did pay adequate taxes, there would be significantly more money available to governments to support the arts—and health, and education. These companies are not being altruistic: they are paying a minimal amount of money in sponsorships (in terms of their wealth) whilst casting themselves as good, corporate citizens and building a culture of dependency and silence around a polluting and culturally destructive industry.

So, what can artists do when we are so squeezed financially and struggling to survive the conditions created by Covid-19, particularly ongoing cancellations of our work?

A practical way to reject fossil fuel funding has been developed by Groundwater Arts, a US citizen-artist collaborative. They propose a clause that artists can insert in their contracts to reject funding derived from the extractive industries. It reads in part:

Client/Employer [should define ‘Client’ and ‘Employer’ in the contract] hereby represents and warrants that: (i) it has not heretofore knowingly and willingly received funds or donation from fossil fuel industries.

Artists can advocate for the inclusion of similar clauses in Australia’s workplace agreements developed by our peak arts organisations such as NAVA, Theatre Network Australia, APAM and MEAA. Festivals, arts organisations and artists can actively engage in securing relationships with funders investing in climate action and climate justice whilst simultaneously and publicly withdrawing their support—and their hard-won social capital—from the art-washing initiatives of the extractive capitalist industry. We live in a time in which there is no alternative.

In concluding the Maps of Gratitude film, Gabrielle de Vietri sums it up best:

The social context of our arts must become more authentically connected to our ethics. To the tides of public sentiment. To the urgency of our times. We must interrupt the cultural soliloquy of big business and replace it with the urgent and overwhelming public outcry demanding climate justice.


Image: a detail from Maps of Gratitude

Alex Kelly

Alex Kelly is a filmmaker and activist based on Dja Dja Wurrung Country. Alex has been an active supporter of Fossil Free Arts NT campaign to end Santos sponsorship of the Darwin Festival.

More by Alex Kelly ›

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  1. It’s tricky isn’t it?
    Fossil fuel and mining corporations have their greedy, grasping hands in so many honeypots, it would be difficult to identify who owns what, even with a team of lawyers.
    Soaring with the Angels while dining with the Devils is fraught with danger.

  2. Great article. Let’s also add the political angle. Weaning the arts off fossil fuels means securing alternative forms of funding. That’s difficult to do in Australia, given the connections between government and industry, through lobbying, donations, and personal connections. Between private and public purse-holders, the arts are held captive.

    In the interests of accuracy: Rio Tinto hasn’t traded in fossil fuels since 2018. The broader point about the arts’ reliance on private sector interests remains valid, of course.

  3. Building from Andy’s comment, in thinking about other forms of funding, we might also consider safer ways of financing the arts. There are a range of service industries rather than commodity extractions that can help here. Union funding, co-operative sponsorships, renewable sources, family enterprises, small businesses are all preferable as economic models in and of themselves and as arts funding sources. Encouraging the right mix to sustain independent artists and arts workers especially in the small to medium sector matters going forward. Thanks for writing and publishing, and keeping this conversation going.

  4. It is so easy to sling mud from the sidelines but in reality what other organisations have the structure, engineering know how and the funding to build a true greener future? Do you have any idea of the capex spend required to move away from fossil fuels??? Basically the only companies which can afford to do it are the old OG companies. Now you are having a go at them for doing exactly that?! Damned if they do damned if they don’t!

    Do you really want the OG companies to disappear overnight? Is that your solution??

    I’m not sure what solution you have or whether you are just going to continue to hate on big corps because you don’t understand the real world.

    I’m a greenie, but I’m also a realist. We should show support to companies which are changing, not continue to hold grudges.


  5. Just as communities and workers dependent on fossil fuel employment should be supported through a transition by government through policy, perhaps the arts could similarly be supported to change financing sources. That may be through taxation or another means, such as incentivising sponsorship and/or investment in the arts for banks and other organisations who typically sponsor community fundraisers and the like.

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