Benjamin Law resigns from Sydney Festival board amid review into Israeli sponsorship

This month's Sydney Festival has been the subject of a funding controversy that has seen several artists and workers withdraw from involvement in the event.

Benjamin Law has resigned from the Sydney Festival board.

Benjamin Law has resigned from the Sydney Festival board. Source: Supplied:

Author and journalist Benjamin Law has resigned from the board of the Sydney Festival in light of a sponsorship deal by the Israeli embassy that sparked a boycott of the festival by dozens of artists.

The event has met pressure from the increasing momentum of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement - a global initiative led by Palestinians aiming to place economic sanctions on the state of Israel and associations linked to it -  for accepting the funding of $20,000 from the Israeli embassy to support the production of Decadence, a stage show by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

Law had been criticised on social media for not acknowledging the backlash against the festival.

He took to social media on Saturday, saying his resignation was an act of his alone, and that he was sorry for the position artists were put in.

“While I can’t speak for the board or the festival, I am personally sorry to Sydney festival artists and arts workers that you were put in a position where you may have had to choose between your work and values, or thrust into conversations for which you may have felt unprepared,” Law said in a long statement.

“Many of you were confronted with a lose-lose proposition. On one hand: perform and be criticised for apparently standing alongside a foreign government whose money you never touched. On the other: withdraw and lose vital work in a period that has been shattering for you and the entire arts community.”

Artist Khaled Sabsabi, dance ensemble Bindi Bosses, rapper Barkaa, comedians Nazeem Hussain and Tom Ballard, journalist Amy McQuire, and author Yumi Stynes are among those who have cut ties with the festival in recent weeks. 

Law said he had mediated meetings between the festival board and those protesting and hoped those meetings would continue.

“In all of this, I’ve done my best to serve the festival, advocate for artists and help facilitate difficult but necessary conversations,” he wrote.

“However, this has come at a personal cost. I acknowledge I’m one of many. Artists involved in Sydney Festival – all of whom have seen COVID-19 obliterate work and income – have understandably felt frustration over why they were put in a situation not of their making. As an artist who has made work for Sydney Festival myself, I feel that frustration.”

In a statement released by the festival on Friday, board chairperson David Kirk said "the festival has faced unprecedented challenges this year".

"This has put significantly increased pressure on all members of the board, the staff, and most importantly, artists.” 

He has said the festival would undertake a review of how artists came to be in a position where they felt compromised.

“They feel compromised, many of them, and many of them are being pressurised to withdraw their performances from the festival," Kirk told the ABC on Thursday.

"And we're very sorry about that. That is something we would never have wanted to do and we never want to see happen again."

Law said the Sydney Festival board will commission an independent review into the festival’s funding and existing practices.

"This will resume immediately upon the completion of Sydney Festival 2022. Findings and recommendations will be ready within months," he tweeted.

"Artists: your experiences will be at the centre of this review. You’ll hear more from the festival in due course. Like you, I look forward to its findings."

On Friday, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance released a statement saying it had been contacted by a number of its members working at the festival "who have chosen to express solidarity with the boycott movement by either declining shifts or, where this is not possible, wearing badges or other items expressing their personal view".

"It is frequently the case that arts workers express their support for and solidarity with causes that align with their values. MEAA supports the right of our members to express their personal views in this way in the course of their employment. This is part of the rich mix of expression and exchange in a vibrant creative community."

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4 min read
Published 15 January 2022 at 2:17pm
By Akash Arora
Source: SBS News