Australia Council denies it said Prime Minister wouldn't like artist's self-insemination project

Australia’s leading arts funding body has denied a senior executive warned an artist who planned to live-stream an attempted self-insemination that “our Prime Minister is a religious man and could defund the Australia Council”.

© Eddie Jim Casey Jenkins begins a performance art project where every month she will be self-inseminating on a livestream. 12 August 2020. The Age News. Photo: Eddie Jim.

Casey Jenkins is suing the Australia Council, claiming that it discriminated on gender, sexuality, marital and pregnancy grounds when it cancelled funding for the Immaculate project last year. Jenkins also claims the body made humiliating and embarrassing public statements that defamed the artist’s professional reputation.

In court documents, Jenkins alleged the “real reason” the Australia Council withdrew support for the project was “because of the actual, perceived, or feared reactions or actions of individuals” including Prime Minister Scott Morrison in response to media publications about Immaculate. Jenkins said they included a segment on Peta Credlin’s Sky News program that “publicly denigrated” the artist and the Council for supporting them.

But in a legal defence filed to the Federal Court, the Council denied discriminating against or defaming Jenkins and argued that even if the statements had been defamatory it was entitled to make them in response to public inquiries and complaints about Immaculate including to the office of Arts Minister Paul Fletcher.

Last August, on the first day of Jenkins’ performance of Immaculate which documented attempts to become pregnant by self-insemination, the Council emailed Jenkins saying it was suspending its support for the project, part of a previously approved $25,000 grant.

Jenkins claimed that during a subsequent video meeting with senior Council managers, Alice Nash, executive director of arts investment, said the body had “unspecified ethical and legal concerns for a potential future child that Jenkins might have” as the result of the attempts to become pregnant.

Jenkins claimed Nash said “words to the effect that ‘our Prime Minister is a religious man and could defund the Australia Council’.”

In its defence, the Council denied Nash made this comment and the claims as to the “real reasons” it withdrew its support for the production.

The Council said its September decision to rescind the funding of Immaculate was made by its then-chair Sam Walsh and chief executive officer Adrian Collette. It said that despite the council approving funding for the project earlier in 2020, its executive first became aware of Immaculate from media reports in August last year in this masthead.

Its reasons for cancelling the funding, it said, included that the project “exposed the [Council] to unacceptable, potentially long-term and incalculable risk.”

In addition, the Council “could not be party to an act that could result in bringing new life into this world as part of an art project” and “the current and longer-term consequences for the child, the child’s parent and donor are inappropriate for a government entity to accept”.

Jenkins said an Australia Council media release had implied the artist intended to engage in unethical, illegal activity unworthy of its support, and that Jenkins had sought to mislead the body about the project.

This “gravely injured her feelings, credit, personal and professional reputation” and left Jenkins humiliated and embarrassed and suffering loss and damage, according to the statement of claim.

The Council denied that the media release was defamatory – and even if it was, the Council was protected by “qualified privilege” because it was responding to media reports, to complaints received directly and to the office of Mr Fletcher, and to letters from the arts community including from performance artist Stelarc who wrote to defend Jenkins.

It was in the public interest to explain its decision to rescind the funding, the Council said.

The Council said Jenkins could use the grant funds for a different project, and pointed out that after it had withdrawn support the artist had received around $25,000 for Immaculate from the Swiss Gartler Foundation.

The Federal Court has ordered Jenkins and the Council to undertake mediation in November, with a court hearing on December 3.

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