MINING CULTURE: Sam Walsh and the Australia Council for the Arts

27 April 2018

Only two years ago, Sam Walsh, the man who is now at the helm of the Australia Council for the Arts, quit his leadership position at Rio Tinto under a cloud after a bribery scandal involving the mining giant’s West African operations.[1] Walsh had worked his way up over several decades to become Chief Executive of the company, the second largest mining conglomerate in the world, and one of Australia’s most carbon emitting companies.[2] He is now non-executive Director of Mitsui & Co, a company with oil, gas and coal operations all over Australia and the world.[3]

Our question is: what on this fragile earth is he doing steering our national arts body? What could this businessman possibly bring to our arts sector, and perhaps more importantly, how will his chairmanship of the Australia Council damage the arts and our society?

Rio Tinto's open-cut coal mine at Bulga, near Singleton.Supplied: John Krey/Hunter Valley Protection Alliance

Rio Tinto's open-cut coal mine at Bulga, near Singleton.Supplied: John Krey/Hunter Valley Protection Alliance


Indeed, the man is well connected and apparently a lover of the arts.[4] But does that qualify him to take the industry’s most senior position, steering the future of artists and arts organisations across the country?

Artist and social activist Ian Milliss says: “The idea that corporate big names are in any way qualified to participate in the arts in any role other than as patrons is one of the most toxic ideas to arise from the neoliberal takeover of the arts. Yes it makes sense if you think the arts are just another form of business, but that is the direct road to artistic failure.”

Arts bodies across Australia have welcomed Sam Walsh to the position with special mentions by name of his mining lineage with the industry giant, Rio Tinto (named after the world’s most poisoned river).[5] These diplomatic endorsements force us to question the nature of corporate relationships with the arts—the parasitic ways in which companies purchase their social licence to operate through association with the society-enriching activities of the arts. And of course, mining is not the only industry to place wealthy corrupt arts-amateurs in these privileged and powerful positions. Ben Eltham’s recent article in Crikey links the bankers from such financial institutions as AMP, NAB and Commbank—all involved in corruption scandals uncovered by the recent Royal Commission—to majors arts organisations across Australia, including the Belvoir Theatre, the Art Gallery of NSW, the Melbourne Festival and the Sydney Opera House, to name a few.[6] Of former Commbank CEO Ian Narev’s chairmanship of Sydney Theatre Company, for example, he asks: “What does it say about the governance of Australian culture that you can preside over a sustained period of corporate malfeasance at a major bank, and still retain your seat as the chair of the country’s largest funded theatre company?” In precarious financial times, artists, arts organisations and arts advocacy bodies perhaps find it more strategic to play along rather than challenge these troubling relationships.

If we remain silent, or worse, continue to celebrate these alliances, what effect can we expect it will have on our sector? How can we suppose that Walsh’s leadership will not influence the ways in which our federal funding operates? How can this man ensure that our already crumbling federal arts base not decline any further? Will he advocate for more, not less federal funding for the arts when he is so committed to the uncomfortable tango between corporate money and the arts? How can he understand the Australia Council’s commitment to critical, innovative art, when his focus is cast on wealth production and mineral extraction? How can he support Australia’s small to medium arts sector, whose concerns more often than not relate to issues such as labour exploitation, climate change and racism; issues which Sam Walsh’s corporate interests likely exacerbate.

Sam Walsh is still under investigation for bribery and corruption in relation to his role in the controversial access deal to a Guinea iron ore mine, and a portion of his ongoing multi-million dollar retirement entitlements from Rio Tinto have been suspended until the investigations have been resolved. But the company’s embroilment in this scandal is not the only blight on its reputation.[7] From radioactive and petrol spills, to human rights violations and genocide, the accusations against the “unprincipled, shameful and evil” company Rio Tinto are many and varied, and sadly not surprising for the industry.[8]

Regardless of the environmental, bureaucratic or human rights crimes that Rio Tinto is implicated in, the very nature of the mining and fossil fuel industries is not one that will in any way align happily with the arts community.[9] Of the corruption probe, Walsh says “he has no fear of the truth.” Well, here is the truth: the destructive capitalism of mining enterprises is directly at odds with the role that art and culture plays in our society. Capitalism breaks societies apart. While not denying the generative potential of art to create moments of tension and conflict, art’s power ultimately lies in its ability to unite and enrich society; it is an antidote to capitalism. The neo-colonial and profit-driven practice of extracting fossil fuels and minerals, selling them for astounding profits, to be burned to create runaway climate change, is worlds away from the reflective, humanistic and socially-attuned outlook of the arts.

So why is it that these companies and their high-powered executives need the arts so much (not to mention the tax cuts)? Mel Evans, author of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts calls it a “cynical PR strategy.”[10] They use our image to clean their name. They use our galleries as advertising space. They use our events to be seen, to do business and to make deals. It’s a club with codes and perks and outcomes that have nothing to do with the reason that we make art, and it’s gross.

Sam Walsh’s promotion within the arts completely undermines the movement to end our dependence on excessive mining, and the global efforts to create a better, more just and healthier earth. By appointing Walsh, Australia is taking a massive step backwards in its lack of acknowledgement of mining companies’ role in the rapid onset of climate change and environmental destruction, and the insidious ways in which the industry attempts to stay afloat. And our reckless federal government is serving up a healthy slice of arts pie for Walsh to stick his grubby fingers in.

Arts activist, John Jordan said: “There is always a turning point when a certain form of culture is seen as toxic and unacceptable. At some point in the early 19th century the slave trade was no longer perceived as business as usual but a violent inhuman practice. Our cultural perception of the fossil fuel industry is now at a similar turning point - and not a minute too soon!”[11]

Across the world, time and again, artists have protested the unhappy marriage of fossil fuels and culture. It’s time that Australia got on board.

The Artists’ Committee is calling for the immediate resignation of Sam Walsh, and the appointment of a more appropriate chairperson for the Australia Council for the Arts.


1 “Australia Council welcomes appointment of Sam Walsh AO as next chair,” Australia Council for the Arts, 21 April 2018. Accessed April 26 2018
Peter Ker, “Rio Guinea scandal labelled 'suspected corruption,'” Australian Financial Review, 25 July 2017. Accessed April 26 2018

2 Australia’s 10 biggest climate polluters 2016, Australian Conservation Foundation, 29 FEB 2016. Accessed April 26 2018

3 Mitsui Business Areas

4 David Webber, “Sam Walsh and his love affair with the arts“ in ABC News, 18 January 2013. Accessed April 26 2018

5 NAVA welcomes Sam Walsh AO as Australia Council Chair and recognises the achievements of Rupert Myer AO, National Association for the Visual Arts website, 21 April 2018. Accessed April 26 2018

6 Ben Eltham, “Why the Australian arts sector could be in for a major reckoning” in Crikey, 26 April 2018. Accessed 27 April 2018

7 Brian Robins and Jose Branco, “Ex-Rio boss Sam Walsh 'has no fear of the truth' in Guinea corruption probe” in Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 2017. Accessed April 26 2018

8 Bridie Jabour, “Radioactive spill: similar incident at Rio Tinto mine days earlier” in The Guardian, 11 December 2018. Accessed 26 April 2018

Phoebe Stewart, “Rio Tinto faces charges over Gove fuel spill” ABC News, 17 June 2011. Accessed 26 April 2018

Rio Tinto accused over Bougainville 'genocide'” in ABC News, 26 October 2011. Accessed April 26 2018

Owen Bowcott, “Documents reveal extent of Shell and Rio Tinto lobbying in human rights case” in The Guardian, 7 April 2017. Accessed 26 April 2018

Daniel Flitton, “Rio Tinto's billion-dollar mess: 'unprincipled, shameful and evil'” in Sydney Morning Herald, 19 August 2016. Accessed 26 April 2018

9 Terry Mcalister, “BP and Rio Tinto face protests over environmental record” in The Guardian, 16 April 2015. Accessed 26 April 2018.

Peter Ker, “Rio Tinto unit Turquoise Hill targeted by Mongolian Anti-Corruption Authority” In The Financial Review, 14 March 2018. Accessed 26 April 2018

Mozambique: Mining Resettlements Disrupt Food, Water” in Human Rights Watch, 23 May 2013. Accessed 26 April 2018

10 Mel Evans, Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, Pluto Press, London, 2015

11 Arthur Nelsen, “Fossil Fuels-Arts world divorce is the way the world is moving” in The Guardian, 11 March 2016. Accessed April 26 2018