Perth festival is facing calls on its opening night to drop the orchestral production Become Ocean from this year’s program over a sponsorship arrangement with fossil fuel company Woodside Energy.
The production, scheduled for Saturday, is a performance of John Luther Adams’ Pulitzer prize-winning work – originally written as a reflection about oceanic changes brought on by global heating – by the Western Australian Youth Orchestra (WAYO) and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), in a partnership between the orchestras sponsored by Woodside.
Fossil Free Arts WA have called for the production to be dropped from the festival lineup over concerns that Woodside’s sponsorship amounts to “arts-washing”.
Steven Alyian and Madeleine Antoine, both members of Selfless Orchestra and spokespeople for Fossil Free Arts, said they wanted Perth festival to “take a stand” where WAYO and WASO had not.
“As Australian artists and musicians, a lot of us want to see the end of greenwashing and the exploitation of artists for corporate interests,” Alyian said. “This is quite a blatant attempt at arts-washing.”
Antoine said that as an important training ground for future generations of musicians, WAYO had an obligation to find alternative sponsorship arrangements.
Greenpeace chief executive, David Ritter, said the organisation wanted the sponsorship arrangement with Woodside to end as it was “damaging the festival’s reputation by cynically sponsoring, of all things, an event celebrating the ocean”.
“Gas is a fossil fuel that is driving dangerous climate change, which is the greatest threat to our oceans – so for Woodside to be sponsoring this event is grotesque corporate hypocrisy,” Ritter said.
In a piece for the Guardian in 2018, Adams, the piece’s composer, wrote about the inspiration behind Become Ocean. “As the polar ice melts and sea levels rise, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may literally become ocean … There is no time to waste. I want my art to matter in the deepest possible way.”
Amber Fresh, a member of Perth band Rabbit Island, is playing the festival’s Aesoteric event on 25 February. She also called for WASO to drop Woodside as sponsor.
“If these companies give up fossil fuels, I’ll be happy to take their money. With pleasure,” Fresh said. “I want to be writing love songs, not worrying whether the kids who come after me will have fresh water.”
“[Fossil fuel companies] shouldn’t be asked ‘to sponsor’ and they shouldn’t offer. Linking yourself with beautiful things like the arts is a way to pretend what’s happening is not outrageous.”
It is understood the sponsorship arrangement with Woodside was arranged by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO).
Fossil Free Arts WA had attempted to meet with WASO about the arrangement, but said their approach was refused.
Woodside is currently working to develop the $16bn Scarborough gas project off WA’s coast that has been described as a “bet against” efforts to control the worst effects of climate change.
The burning of fossil fuels such as gas are a key driver of global heating. Last year the International Energy Agency said limiting global heating to 1.5C, a goal set out in the Paris agreement, meant exploration and exploitation of new fossil fuel basins had to stop in 2021.
WAYO was contacted for comment but did not respond by deadline. WASO said it “will not be providing comment at this time”.
Woodside sponsors a large number of arts and sporting organisations, some of which have also faced opposition, such as Surf Life Saving WA’s Nippers program.
The company has been a longtime WASO sponsor, with Woodside’s chief executive, Meg O’Neill also serving on the orchestra’s board.
Woodside has also been the “principal partner” of the Western Australian Youth Orchestra since 1991, with naming rights to some of its programs. The orchestra has regularly played Woodside events, including the company’s annual general meetings.
A spokesperson for Woodside said its 2021 partnership deal had “connected WAYO with the [WASO]” and was “helping develop our local talent, creating pathways for the next generation of gifted musicians”.
“Through the partnership, WAYO musicians are provided with unique opportunities to learn from Western Australia’s professional state orchestra,” they said.
Perth festival itself receives considerable funding from fossil fuel companies. An ongoing arrangement with US oil giant Chevron is among several that have drawn controversy in recent years.
Nathan Bennett, Perth festival executive director, said its corporate sponsors “allow us to bring meaningful cultural experiences to hundreds of thousands of people in Western Australia” and bring in acts that “otherwise would not happen”.
“Become Ocean is a major work involving two orchestras at the heart of our musical culture in WA. Perth festival is proud to showcase and support local companies in our 2022 program,” Bennett said.
“We receive support from a wide range of partners – including corporate sponsors, government supporters and philanthropists – that represent the scope of the Western Australian business sector.”
Lucy Manne, CEO of 350.org, described Woodside’s sponsorship of Become Ocean as “farcical” as it was “very similar to what we have seen with cigarette companies and big tobacco”.
“When you have a business model based on causing harm, you spend a lot of time and effort to improve your image,” Manne said.
“It’s completely farcical for an arts event about the ocean to be sponsored by Woodside, as it is a company that is damaging marine environments and fuelling dangerous climate change.”
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the burning of fossil fuels by humanity contributes to warming oceans, acidification, oxygen depletion and the frequency of marine heatwaves.
Manne said arts organisations should be free to refuse fossil fuel sponsorship and follow the example of organisations like the Australian Open, which appeared to have abandoned a multi-year partnership with Santos last year.
Though Perth’s fringe arts festival Fringe World appeared to have divested itself from Woodside last year, it instead transitioned the sponsorship to its parent company, Artrage. Woodside is also a sponsor of Perth theatre companies Barking Gecko and Yirra Yaakin.