The organisers of the 19th Sydney Biennale have announced that they are severing all links with founding sponsor Transfield, which has been at the centre of protests over its involvement with running detention centres for asylum seekers in Australia. The chairman of the Biennale, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who is also chairman of Transfield Holdings, has resigned his position with the festival.

Organisers said in a statement: “We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately. With deep regret, the board reluctantly accepted the decision of the chair to resign. We gratefully acknowledge the personal contribution of Luca as chair over the past 14 years. We also acknowledge the enormous contribution of the Belgiorno-Nettis family over 41 years.”

In a statement, Belgiorno-Nettis said: “The situation has now reached a crescendo… There would appear to be little room for sensible dialogue, let alone deliberation… With many of the participating artists now torn between loyalty to our creative director and wanting to make a stand against this government policy, the core spirit of the festival is under a dark cloud… I have tendered my resignation from the Biennale board in the hope that some blue sky may open up over this 19th Biennale of Sydney.”

He added that Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of ‘blood on your hands’. “I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naïve and offensive. This situation is entirely unfair – especially when directed towards our dedicated Biennale team who give so much of themselves.”

The relationship between Sydney Biennale and Transfield goes back to when it was founded in the early 1970s with the support of Belgiorno-Nettis’ father, the founder of Transfield. ‘I wear two hats,” said Belgiorno-Nettis, “one as chair of the Biennale of Sydney and the other as a director of Transfield Holdings; both organisations conceived by my father and nurtured by my family over many decades.”

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Olafur Olafsson, one of five artists who announced their withdrawal from the Biennale last week, said that in light of the Biennale’s decision he would be discussing with his artistic partner Libia Castro what they should now do: ‘Obviously this seems to be a positive development but we need to talk together to see what our next response will be.”

Quoted in The Guardian, Australian artist Nathan Gray, who withdrew from the Biennale on Wednesday, said he would be happy to now take part: “I’d be proud to work for an organisation that has made such a strong stance on a human rights issue. My concern with the Biennale was purely the unethical sponsorship issue. I think the Biennale board have done a great thing…”

The 19th Sydney Biennale is scheduled to open on 21 March. Deputy chairman Andrew Cameron will become acting chair until a new chairman is appointed after the end of the event in June.

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