Self-insemination artist ‘vindicated’ after settling legal case over withdrawn Australian government funding

<span>Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian

A performance artist who had federal government funding cancelled after a backlash against a work involving their self-insemination says the national arts advisory body is still being run by the people who led the “ridiculous charge” against them.

Casey Jenkins has settled a federal court case against the Australia Council, now known as Creative Australia, for withdrawing $25,000 in funding for the exhibition Immaculate, in which they intended to livestream their monthly attempts to become pregnant.

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As part of the settlement, the arts body agreed to an extraordinary acknowledgment, apologised to Jenkins, and will pay them a six-figure sum. Jenkins was not required to sign any confidentiality or non-disparagement clauses.

Jenkins received the funding from the council in 2020 for an international project.

When the pandemic closed international borders, they were granted an amendment to the funding so that it could be used for Immaculate, a live stream of them self-inseminating with donated sperm while discussing their past experiences with conception. They said the project aimed to confront stigmas against queer pregnancy and parenting in the art world.

The amendment was rescinded by the council in a letter sent in September 2020, soon after the project was criticised by rightwing commentators including Peta Credlin, who described it as a “sheer abuse of taxpayer grants”, and Bella d’Abrera, of the Institute of Public Affairs, who said it was “outrageous” and “incredibly offensive to Catholics”.

Jenkins said they felt “relieved, vindicated, exhausted and hopeful” by the settlement.

But they added: “The same people who led this ridiculous charge against me are still at the helm of Creative Australia.”

“I do … hope that the apology they are making will be read carefully and that structural and policy changes they have implemented since they ‘rescinded’ their support for me will be examined.

“I hope questions are asked about these things. It is up to all of us now to hold them to account for their actions and not allow [this incident] to be swept under the rug and repeated down the line.”

Creative Australia declined to comment on the settlement. Peter Seidel, a partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler, who represented Jenkins, said: “We were privileged to act on behalf of Casey in what was a really courageous thing for them to do.”

In its acknowledgment to Jenkins, Creative Australia says Jenkins was “clear and honest” in their application regarding to Immaculate and it had “no reason to believe that Casey acted with anything but the utmost ethical integrity”.

The body also acknowledged it discussed Jenkins’ application with “third parties outside its normal practice and without Casey’s permission”, shared a personal document with a third party that had been provided to it by Jenkins on the condition of confidentiality “without Casey’s knowledge and against Casey’s clearly expressed wishes that it not be shared with anyone or retained on file” and directed that another arts body, Vitalstatistix, cease previously awarded funding to Jenkins.

Funding is reactionary and funders lack backbone

Casey Jenkins

The acknowledgment further outlines that it repeatedly referred to “concerns for a future conceived child, potential child and child, with the understanding Casey was not pregnant, and with no reasons to cast aspersions on their parenting ability”.

“It has been aware from the time it suspended its support, to when it rescinded its funding and posted a public statement regarding Immaculate, that as a result of its actions Casey suffered considerable distress,” the acknowledgment said.

“The Australia Council [Creative Australia] unreservedly apologises to Casey for the actions that have necessitated the above acknowledgement.”

Jenkins said as part of the settlement the board and management of Creative Australia had agreed to undertake “specific in person training about gender equity, LGBTIQA+ people and women and their rights, unconscious bias, rainbow families and reproductive rights”.

Jenkins added they had not been able to exhibit in Australia since funding for Immaculate was withdrawn.

“It cast a pall of suspicion over my practice which effectively suffocated it. I’ve exhibited frequently overseas in the last three years but not once in Australia because Creative Australia owns this town. No one was brave enough to cross them.

“It has revealed how entrenched inequity and prejudice is in arts institutions. It has also revealed that funding is reactionary and funders lack backbone.

“I believe many Arts Institutions in Australia select artwork to pander to popular opinion or perceived threats from government or media, rather than leading public discourse with integrity.”