When Companies Offer Cash, Dublin Artists Worry About Undue Influence and "Art-Washing"

Dressed all in pink and wearing the Airbnb logo on her head, artist Avril Corroon took to the roof of an Airbnb apartment in Temple Bar back in 2017, in a piece of performance art she called Wish You Were Here.

“I’ve learned that a successful Airbnb has got to be generic enough to appeal to the masses but differentiate itself through signature features,” she said in the performance.

Corroon’s Airbnb flat boasted its own signature feature too – a Guinness tap. “You have to stand out from the crowd, have that je ne sais quoi,” she said at the time.

Wish You Were Here was focused on the marketing tactics of organisations that promote Irish tourism and the “sharing economy”, and was part of her residency with Temple Bar Gallery and Studios.

With it, Corroon was trying to highlight how absurd she felt it was for tourists to seek unique cultural experiences in “Ireland’s cultural drinking quarter”, while also accusing Airbnb of appropriating the language and strategies of grassroots movements.

While Corroon’s 2017 piece took on Airbnb, at the moment, Airbnb is looking to support artists. Last Friday was the closing date to apply for Airbnb-funded grants for community and creative projects in Ireland through their programme Áitiúil (meaning local).

According to the brief, the projects should fulfil the criteria of “promoting Ireland’s culture and help to serve the local community”.

Corroon did not apply for these Airbnb grants. Like some other artists, she is concerned about corporations using artistic and creative projects to cover up the harm they do to communities, a process she refers to as “art-washing”.

Airbnb Sponsors the Arts

Airbnb has a long history of supporting local initiatives around the world, and sees the Áitiúil project as “another step in that journey”, according to Jean Hoey, public policy lead for Airbnb in Ireland.

“We want to help preserve and promote what makes each community unique for everyone: hosts, guests and locals alike,” Hoey says. “That’s why we are supporting community groups across Ireland in their mission to promote culture, sustain the environment and celebrate Irish heritage.”

The Áitiúil grants aren’t just restricted to artists – community groups and local businesses can also apply.

Airbnb suggests that some potential project areas could include the environment, placemaking (raising awareness and celebrating Irish destinations and heritage), innovation, and festivals or events.

Hoey says Airbnb has had a good response to the grants. They will select judges from their existing Irish hosts, who will announce some winning projects in the coming months, she says.

The call for applications for Áitiúil grants was advertised on the Visual Arts Ireland website. CEO Noel Kelly says they provide a free platform for people to offer opportunities to artists.

Kelly says he cannot recall any occasion where they turned down an offer from a corporation for a listing, because he thinks the fairest thing is to post each ad and then let the artists themselves decide what they want to apply for.

“Our members have different opinions from each other, so we try to be balanced,” Kelly says. “We do empathise with people’s opinions.”

(Visual Arts Ireland do turn down ads from time to time if they don’t offer a fair and equitable work opportunity for the artist, Kelly says.)

Corroon is critical of the Áitiúil programme. “I think when companies like Airbnb offer grants dressed up to seem like they value locals and communities, which they’re actively decimating, it’s fraught with inexcusable contradictions,” she says.

“They help fuel a housing crisis which closes art venues and studios, drives artists away and isolates long-term, living members of existing areas,” she says.

Airbnb didn’t directly respond to queries about those concerns.

Corporate Sponsorship of Art

Artist Kerry Guinan has tackled the subject of corporate sponsorship in the arts through her works.

Back in 2014, she did an installation called 126©Kerry Guinan, in which she rebranded the studio she was working in as if she was the corporate sponsor.

During the recession, the cuts to the arts were severe, and the gallery was empty because they had had to cancel their exhibitions due to lack of funds, she says.

When there is no public funding for the arts, the next course of action is for artists to seek private sponsorship, Guinan says. That, in turn, forces them to compromise their artistic autonomy, she says.

If you remove funding for art, that has a negative impact on society overall, she says.

“Art has always been fundamental to the operation of society and public life,” Guinan says. “You can’t just write it off as a luxury.”

In 2017, Guinan made a piece of artwork examining plans by developer Kennedy Wilson to help arrange funding for acultural quarter in Parnell Square.

She is concerned that multinational companies pay very little tax here and instead engage in “corporate social responsibility to dissuade the impact they are having on communities and art-washing themselves”, she says.

Those corporations should not get to decide which public services get funded, Guinan says. “Most people would just want them to pay their taxes,” she says

What Is the Deal?

When corporations fund artistic endeavours, different ones ask for different levels of influence on the works produced, Guinan says.

Some sponsors don’t demand any influence over the final product, while others are very prescriptive about the content of the work itself, she says.

Guinan believes that the Airbnb grants fall into the latter category, that they are overly prescriptive. The links to the programme’s terms and conditions are broken. In any case, though, “Whatever that artist makes it is going to be an ad for Airbnb,” Guinan says.

Artists have to weigh up each grant scheme, says Corroon, the artist who did the 2017 piece focused on Airbnb in Temple Bar, assessing “the levels of toxicity, what are the activities of this corporation, is it art-washing, if there’s an organised boycott that should be respected”.

Corroon says she has never done a sponsorship deal with a corporation, but, “I’ve certainly exhibited in shows, I’m sure, where’s there’s been some sort of corporate sponsorship and benefited from that”, she says.

“Capitalism pervades the arts so much it’s impossible to be clean,” Corroon says.

Guinan says she has never gotten corporate support for her art, but that taking state grants is problematic too. “There is no ethical way to earn money,” she says.

“Using culture to promote Brand Ireland is also art-washing,” Guinan says. “It’s a quagmire.”

The problem is by no means new. There is a long history of rich people funding the arts and “a history of subtle subversion”, Guinan says.

“I always find myself trapped in a contradiction of wanting to make work that is political,” she says. “But I can’t escape the fact that art itself is grounded in dirty money.”

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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David Flood
at 11 March at 15:15

Yes, thanks for highlighting this issue. There is also one competition run in the Docklands sponsored by a law firm providing services to REITS and vulture funds. Certainly these types funding streams are not interested in taking on politically sensitive issues, no matter how local they may be.

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