Fringe World’s sponsorship policy, published online in July, includes a clause stating presenters and venues must “not do any act or omit to do any act that would prejudice” corporate sponsors.
In a web page headlined Fringe World response to artist comments, organisers argued the clause protected partnerships and ensured the success of the popular festival, adding Fringe World and Woodside respected the artists’ rights to protest but objected to any activity that would be “harmful” to the presentation of the show.
Australian comedian Tom Ballard, who has brought a number of shows to the festival over the years, said the clause prioritised corporate sponsorships over artists’ freedom of expression.
“The policy prevents artists from ‘disparaging’ a Fringe World sponsor like Woodside – does this include criticising them and their polluting record, or satirising them or joking about them? – and explicitly tells artists to not participate in the festival if they have an objection to the ethical behaviour of a sponsor,” Ballard said.
Ballard, who won’t appear at next year’s festival, said Fringe World could follow the lead of other cultural institutions such as Tate, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, and the Edinburgh and Adelaide fringe festivals by distancing itself from the resources industry.
“I completely understand the financial pressures an event like Fringe World would be under and I’m sure that Woodside’s sponsorship has resulted in great things for the festival and the artists,” he told WAtoday.
“But the climate crisis is happening, it’s real and the art-washing of big polluters like Woodside has to end now. Woodside’s business model relies on trashing the planet and contravening the rights of First Nations people.”
Performer, writer and activist Noemie Huttner-Koros, who was among the artists and organisations who signed a letter addressed to festival chief executive Sharon Burgess calling for Woodside’s contract to be “ruled out” last year, echoed Ballard’s concerns.
“Rather than engaging with the artists that it’s meant to be representing and that it’s meant to be supporting, Fringe completely left them behind and it’s just putting the interests of its sponsor ahead of the interests of the artists, but also of the planet,” she said.
“It creates a culture of fear within the arts where artists are afraid of speaking up for fear of a negative impact on their careers, an organisation’s funding or future opportunities. It also effectively censors the kind of performance and artworks artists can make in Perth which is both scary and disappointing.
“What kind of actions would an artist have to do to be contravening that statement? It’s pretty hard to make a show in 2020 that doesn’t allude to the fact that we are living in a climate emergency.”
Promoter Chris Dodd, who first got involved with Fringe World 15 years ago as a performer, said it was asking performers to “sell their soul” for a few fossil fuel dollars.
“For a massive company like Woodside to try and gag artists is a little bit naive and a little bit precious, to be honest,” he said.
He said the “Fringe World machine” had lost sight of the artists it was supposed to represent and was more concerned with pleasing sponsors like Woodside than performers.
The oil and gas giant has been a sponsor of the festival since its early days in 2012, funding the creation of Fringe World’s app due to launch next year and its review platform Fringefeed.
Other festival partners include Lotterywest, the City of Perth, Kleenheat, and Edith Cowan University, the state government, MadFish, K&L Gates, and Gage Roads Brewing.
A Woodside spokeswoman would not disclose how much cash the company had funnelled into the festival, arguing it was commercial-in-confidence, but she said Woodside had not requested the clause be introduced.
A Fringe World spokeswoman said a similar clause had been in the festival’s previous contracts, but did not confirm whether the wording was the same as this year’s clause.
“Fringe World has had references to sponsorships in its contracts since 2012 and whilst there may have been changes over the years the intent remains the same,” she said.
“There are a very small number of participants who have given us feedback in relation to the partnership between Fringe World and Woodside, however, the vast majority have not raised this matter with us.
“The fact that there are more than 450 events registered in the 2021 festival speaks volumes to the support that artists have for the Fringe World platform.”
The spokeswoman said the festival was a platform for the expression of artistic work and a broad range of views, a position supported by Woodside.
Fringe World festival is pencilled in to run from January 15 to February 14, 2021, subject to COVID-19 restrictions allowing big events to go ahead.
Marta is an award-winning photographer and journalist with a focus on social justice issues and local government.