Potts Point artist Shayne Chester is auctioning work to raise money for asylum seekers. Photo: Chris Peken

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Local artists have reacted with outrage at suggestions from the federal government that artists who reject corporate funding should not receive government funding.

In reaction to the Biennale of Sydney’s decision to drop the Transfield Foundation as a sponsor, arts minister George Brandis sent a letter last week to the Australian Council for the Arts asking them to limit government funding to those who reject corporate sponsorship. Transfield Services, parent of the Transfield Foundation, has a contract to provide welfare services in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

Shayne Chester, an artist working in Potts Point, criticised the move by Mr Brandis and said it may have a chilling effect on artists.

“I think it’s very malicious of Brandis to be demonising artists in the same way it’s malicious of the government to be demonizing asylum seekers,” he said.

“Artists like any workers have the right to withdraw their labour or the fruits of their labour if they have a problem with those who are providing the funding. It’s fairly obvious that taking dollars made from cruelty and illegal incarceration is not only immoral but delegitimizes the art of that artist.”

Chester is currently holding a charity auction of his own artworks. All proceeds will go to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which works to provide services like food banks and social support for asylum seekers in Australian communities.

“One reason I’m doing this art auction for refugees is to show that not all artists are just out there taking funding like beggars. Sometimes we support ourselves, sometimes we give back,” he said.

Elsewhere the Sticky Institute, an artist-run initiative, recently pulled out of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art because the gallery is sponsored by Transfield.

“We believe that participation in the fair would contribute to the creation of cultural value and validation for Transfield Services, a company whose profits partially derive from the mandatory detention of people seeking protection from abuses of their human rights,” the group stated.

In his letter, Mr Brandis argued that the Arts Council of Australia should discourage artists from spurning corporate funding because it may in turn discourage corporate sponsors from offering funding.

“The decision sends precisely the wrong message to other actual or potential corporate sponsors of the arts: that they may be insulted, and possibly suffer reputational damage, if an arts company or festival decides to make a political statement about an aspect of their commercial relationships with government,” he wrote.

Gabrielle Devietri, spokesperson for the Biennale artists’ working group, said: “By logical extension, George Brandis’ ultimatum would see public funding stripped from a children’s sports festival that refused sponsorship from a tobacco company.”

Mr Brandis’ comments came after an ABC interview with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which Mr Turnbull suggested: “If they don’t like the government’s policy they should reject any arts event that has funding from the federal government.”

But Mr Chester rejected this line of thinking as a double-standard and an impossibility.

“It’s the same as saying everybody who disagrees with the asylum seeker policy but receives some benefit from the government, be it welfare or child support or a tax break, should refund that money because they have a grievance with the government,” he said.

Ms Devietri said the future of ethical sponsorship is in no way jeopardised by the actions she and others took against the Biennale.

“This is the beginning of greater accountability for individuals, organisations, corporations, and hopefully, eventually, government,” she said.

Explore Shayne Chester’s art auction here.