Sydney Festival Chair David Kirk has fronted the media to apologise after more than 100 artists and crew boycotted the festival over its decision to accept $20,000 from Israel’s Australian embassy. The funds were to support Sydney Dance Company’s production of Decadence, by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, which Limelight editor Jo Litson described as “a sensational evening of thrilling, visceral dance”.
However in interviews with the ABC, the Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald Kirk did not apologise for the festival soliciting the funding in the first place, nor did he pledge to return the funding – something the boycott organisers say would end the boycott immediately. Kirk also didn’t rule out accepting funding from governments in the future, saying only that the board was instituting a review of their processes and he didn’t want to pre-empt that.
Kirk did not reveal who would be undertaking the review, nor a timeline for its report. He added that the festival regularly accepts sponsorship from foreign embassies and cultural agencies. His comments this week essentially echo the board’s statement from January 4.
It was revealed on Wednesday that festival director Olivia Ansell approached the Israeli embassy with the sponsorship proposal in July 2021, and Kirk told the Herald the board didn’t know about it until it saw the logo of the embassy of Israel printed on the festival programs late last year.
He also told the ABC he was not considering resigning. “I’m not trying to hide from the fact that this was a mess,” Kirk said. “We should have understood, we should have been prepared to debate this much more fully at the time but we didn’t.”
Kirk expanded on those comments in the Guardian: “I think if we had understood, had the foresight to realise that this would be the sort of issue that it has become, then we would have had detailed discussions and we would have considered what the best way forward was, but we didn’t.”
“We are very sorry for the fact that we put artists in a situation where they felt compromised or have been pressurised, and have either been in a position where they’ve felt the need to withdraw their work or continue with their work [and] have been subjected to pretty serious social media pressure to withdraw.”
“We really regret that. We accept that we caused that and the review that we intend to undertake is focused on ensuring this ever happens again.”
In response, the boycott organisers have questioned why the festival won’t terminate the sponsorship, especially given their acknowledgement that it has put artists in an impossible position.
“Having recognised that this decision has put artists in a compromising position, why wouldn’t they terminate the sponsorship now?” co-organiser Fahad Ali said to the Herald. “If it has had the effect that it has left artists feeling compromised and unsafe, why continue to put artists in harm’s way?”
Boycott organisers have also questioned how a festival that puts its connection to and collaboration with Australia’s Indigenous peoples at the centre of its practices could have been so inconsiderate of the Palestinian situation.
“Why did a board of a festival with acknowledgments of country plastered over its website, posturing as inclusive, progressive, ‘overlook’, ‘miss’ the depravity of partnering with an apartheid state?”, wrote Randa Abdel-Fattah on Twitter.
“During our meeting with the board, the ‘oversight’ excuse was mentioned. The word ‘blindspot’ was used. We expressed how dehumanizing this was to hear, as Palestinians: that our trauma, oppression, occupation was a ‘blindspot’.”
Ali also denied the suggestion that the boycott organisers were responsible for social media pressure to withdraw from the festival. “As organisers of the campaign, we have been clear in messaging and said that we recognise that it is a very hard ask on artists, so the way we’ve approached it is, ‘It’s your decision, your choice’, said Ali to the Herald.
“We are not the babysitters of the internet; we can’t control the reactions of fans or other commentators. I can say confidently that every artist we have reached out to has been with respect and the utmost of care.”
UPDATE: Sydney Festival has announced that Benjamin Law has stood down from the festival’s board.
In a statement sent by the board on Friday afternoon, Law was quoted as saying, “Today’s decision to leave the board is mine alone. I am only comfortable departing now because I have every confidence in the remaining Board directors for the process ahead, and I remain an ardent fan and supporter of Olivia Ansell’s vision of a reactivated and dynamic Sydney.”
The statement went on to say, “The Board acknowledges that the Festival has faced unprecedented challenges this year, specifically Covid and the BDS movement. This has put significantly increased pressure on all members of the Board, the staff, and most importantly artists.”