At our Amnesty event on 7th October, After the Tricycle: Can arts organisations say ‘no’ to embassy funding?, we asked: do artists and arts organisations have the right to say ‘no’ when governments with negative human rights records try to co-opt culture in the service of their public relations strategies? During the public discussion, other notable instances of threats to the independence of major cultural institutions in the UK were revealed, underlining the vulnerability of underfunded organisations to interference in their arts programming by private donors. This pattern of censorship and manipulation provoked a fascinating audience discussion on the need for strategies to contest political pressure in the arts.

Below are several video clips of presentations from our panel of five, and a clip of contributions from the floor.

Panel chair: Kamila Shamsie, novelist.
Speakers: April De Angelis and Tanika Gupta playwrights, Antony Lerman writer & commentator, and Ofer Neiman of the Israeli group Boycott from Within.

Novelist, and panel Chair, Kamila Shamsie opened the discussion by reading out a message from writer Rachel Holmes, former head of literature at London’s Southbank Centre. It explained Holmes’ disappointment at the decision of the Donmar Warehouse to censor a podcast of an April 2014 event she programmed after the theatre received a complaint from a funder claiming that the event (entitled ‘Mr Balfour’s Letter to Lord Rothschild: How the Great War Remapped the World’) was an attack on the state of Israel and antisemitic: this was accompanied by threats to withdraw funds and to raise grievances with publically funded cultural institutions to which Holmes is connected. She also read out the letter from the UK Department of Culture Media and Sport to a member of the public that confirms the Department worked closely with the Israeli Ambassador to pressure the Tricycle to withdraw its objections to Israeli embassy funds.

Playwright Tanika Gupta revealed that the Tricycle Theatre’s Artistic Director, Indhu Rubasingham, faced racist abuse and calls for her dismissal, even after the Tricycle board had backed down and said it would accept Israeli embassy funding in future. She explained that she had been one of hundreds of theatrical colleagues who had rallied to support Rubasingham. Their letter, published in the Guardian on August 15, said: ‘Punishing a small theatre for standing up for its principles is a big step backwards for anyone concerned with challenging prejudice or promoting freedom of speech. Anyone who truly wants to stand against antisemitism needs to stand with the Tricycle theatre and challenge those who are accusing it in a disproportionate, unjust and ill-informed way.’

Writer and commentator Antony Lerman was invited to make an analysis of the accusation of antisemitism made against the Tricycle Theatre. Lerman told the meeting it was perfectly legitimate for an arts institution to choose to decline funding, and that in protesting the Tricycle had ‘banned’ a Jewish film festival, the official pro-Israel organisations had fallen back on their default strategy, alleging boycott and equating it with antisemitism. He concluded that Tricycle’s actions showed no signs of antisemitism of any kind, nor did they represent any form of attack on freedom of expression.

Ofer Neiman is an active member of the Israeli group Boycott from Within that supports the rights of artists not to collaborate with the Israeli government, or any other oppressive regimes. He explained culture-washing in detail, quoting a special department in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs describing its own responsibilities as ‘attaining prominence and high exposure abroad for Israel’s cultural and scientific activity, as an important tool for the promotion of its political interests.’ He emphasised that efforts to bring about change in the actions of the Israeli government need to be based on the understanding that culture cannot be separated from politics. You can read his presentation in full here.

Playwright April De Angelis pointed out that there were several current and historical instances of boycotts challenging dubious sponsorship of the arts – a process she called ‘culture-washing’. She gave as an example the stand taken by the Writers Guild of the UK and Actors’ Equity in supporting the boycott campaign targeting Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and beyond, and noted that, today, the ‘Art not Oil’ coalition campaigns against sponsorship by criminally negligent corporations. Having worked with young Palestinians who would not have had access to her work if performed in Israel De Angelis had decided to join the cultural boycott.

Among the many stories of intimidation and threats by donors that emerged at ‘After the Tricycle’, was that narrated by audience member Bill McAllister who was Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 1977 to 1990: the ICA was threatened with blacklisting by the Board of Deputies of British Jews for hosting the first UK Palestinian Film Festival. The BoD attempted to implement its threat by writing to every other sponsor demanding that they should pull out. Attempts at face-to-face discussion collapsed with the BoD spokesman ‘flying into a rage,’ McAllister said. In this instance the ICA stood firm. But the audience at the panel discussion was left wondering how many more cases of successful bullying and intimidation there have been over the years.