Transfield Boss Quits Art Festival His Family Founded Over Immigration Detention Centre Row

The Biennale of Sydney. Photo Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, chairman of the Biennale of Sydney, which his family founded 41 years ago, has resigned and the art festival will sever ties with Transfield, its major sponsor and the company Belgiorno-Nettis runs.

The sudden split follows mounting pressure from artists who planned to boycott the Biennale, which begins later this month, because of the event’s links to Transfield Services, recently won the $1.2 billion government contract to operate Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres.

In a statement released late today, Belgiorno-Nettis said

I wear two hats: one as chair of the Biennale of Sydney and the other as a director of Transfield Holdings; both organisations conceived by my father and nurtured by my family over many decades.

I am deeply thankful to the many friends of the Biennale, and my personal friends who have supported me and the teams throughout my tenure, especially in recent weeks.

I hope that blue sky may now open up over this 19th Biennale.

Biennale organisers paid tribute to the outgoing chairman and his family, but the decision to also cut ties with its major sponsor came as a shock, since last week, support for Belgiorno-Nettis was strong.

The Biennale statement said:

We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately.

With deep regret, the Board reluctantly accepted the decision of the chair to resign. We gratefully acknowledge the personal contribution of Luca as chair over the past 14 years.

We also acknowledge the enormous contribution of the Belgiorno-Nettis family over 41 years.

The Board and the extended Biennale community owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Luca and his family.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’ company Transfield Holdings, the festival sponsor, is a shareholder in publicly-listed Transfield Services.

The fight over Transfield’s involvement began a few weeks ago, with an open letter of protest from almost half the artists involved in the Biennale, which opens on March 21

This week, a further four artists announced they would boycott, bringing the total to nine of the 90 artists involved. A staff member also resigned in protest.

Deputy chairman Andrew Cameron is acting chair until a replacement is found, but the decision to sever ties with Transfield raises questions about whether this will be the final Biennale, unless a new major sponsor can be found after four decades of support from Transfield.

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