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Introduction to oil

sponsorship of the arts



You can read below a short introduction to the issue of oil sponsorship of the arts, as well as rebuttals to a series of comments that have been made in the public debate. Platform has also produced a study guide called Take the money and run? Some positions on ethics, business sponsorship and making art that you can read here.


"There's no money that is completely pure" - Nicholas Serota, Tate director
Our Response

"I don't think that when people come out of an exhibition, they think: 'Oh, wow, I'm going to buy BP petrol now'" - Grayson Perry, artist
Our Response

"If you have spent any time in an art gallery recently, you are likely to have BP to thank for the experience" - Tiffany Jenkins, director of arts and society at the Institute of Ideas
Our Response

"If they [Tate and other museums] can get money from Satan himself, they should take it" - Jonathan Jones, arts writer, The Guardian
Our Response

"I'd much rather the money be in the hands of the arts than a petroleum company, so anything they want to give, let's take it" - Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran keyboardist
Our Response

"BP as a company is looking at renewable energy as well as using fossil fuels and using oil" - Nicholas Serota, Tate director
Our Response

"I don't think there's any way we can say the arts scene has been distorted by corporate money" - Colin Tweedy, chief executive, Arts and Business
Our Response



Introduction to oil sponsorship of the arts

By aligning themselves with BP, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate Britain are legitimising the devastation of indigenous communities in Canada through tar sands extraction, the expansion of dangerous oil drilling in the Arctic, and the reckless business practices that lead to the deaths of eleven oil workers on the Deepwater Horizon. BP's involvement with these institutions represents a serious stain on the UK's cultural patrimony.

Apart from catastrophic spills like the Deepwater Horizon, there are a whole host of adverse impacts that are associated with the production of oil. On the local level, it often involves extreme forms of pollution for local communities, while regionally oil is frequently associated with greater militarization and conflict. Globally, carbon emissions, oil companies, and our collective dependence on the product they push, are taking us ever closer to the edge of climate catastrophe.

In order for an oil company to produce oil and transport it to the global market, it needs either the support or the silence of the population in those areas of the world in which this takes place. Where the necessary support – or 'social licence to operate' – is not forthcoming, the ability of that company to carry out its business becomes seriously impaired.

The building of this social licence takes place to some extent in the countries of the distant oilfields, but to a far greater degree in the cities of the global North, such as London, one of the companies' key centres of operation. Here, Shell and BP have between them sponsored almost all of London's most prestigious museums and cultural institutions over the course of the last decade.

 

"There's no money that is completely pure" - Nicholas Serota, Tate director

Serota is right, no money is completely pure, but some funding is dirtier than others. Tate knows this and filters sponsors through ethical guidelines that keep check on those benefiting from association with Tate.

It can be argued that because tax is collected from all businesses across all ethical practices, taxation itself is not a clean form of money and the arts already benefit from those taxes. Once taken from the taxpayer, however they may have earned it, this money belongs to society and pays for schools, healthcare, housing, galleries and social welfare. Taking money directly from a specific corporation associates those in receipt of the funds with the activities through which that company makes profit. Accepting sponsorship from a corporation that is causing irreversible environmental damage on a global scale is a choice.

To counter Serota's assertion, it seems that the oil industry is using our cultural institutions to clean their dirty money.

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"I don't think that when people come out of an exhibition, they think: 'Oh, wow, I'm going to buy BP petrol now'" - Grayson Perry, artist

It's subliminal repetition that makes BP's presence in the gallery an effective public relations strategy. Branding works by creating good associations. A curved, machine-embroidered tick on the clothing of several people you walk past in the street, a green mermaid on a paper coffee cup in the hands of every second commuter – these symbols create resonance and power by short, sharp, regular appearances in contexts which give them value. BP's sponsorship money is not philanthropy at all – it is the BP marketing department outsourcing a bargain PR campaign from Tate.

In any case, the marketing involved in arts sponsorship is not aimed at selling petrol on the forecourts – its intention is to garner influence with the 'special publics' (government, non-governmental organisations, academics, media, financial community and business peers) to improve its image. BP doesn't promote its sponsorship on high street billboards, it promotes it on the back cover of the Financial Times magazine, whose readership is tiny but wealthy and influential.

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"If you have spent any time in an art gallery recently, you are likely to have BP to thank for the experience" - Tiffany Jenkins, director of arts and society at the Institute of Ideas

Some have associated free entry to galleries and museums with the existence of oil money, but there is no relationship between the two. These arts institutions are required by government to remain open to the public as a pre-requisite of the public money that they receive.

Cultural institutions would require some innovative planning in order to wean themselves off oil money, but it cannot be argued that it would be impossible. Advocates for tobacco companies used the same argument in the 1980s and 1990s, that international sporting events would be adversely impacted by the withdrawal of tobacco money, but since then those events have found different revenue streams and continued functioning as normal.

Ending oil sponsorship of the arts would not spell the end of the arts. No arts institution depends solely on one particular sponsor and there are significant corporate sponsors outside of the oil industry that would welcome the opportunity to be associated with such brands.

If you spend time in an art gallery, why not thank the artists and curators, thank the cleaning and gallery staff, or thank the campaigners for free access to national art museums (and the progressive politicians that have kept it that way for over a decade).

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"If they [Tate and other museums] can get money from Satan himself, they should take it" - Jonathan Jones, arts writer, The Guardian

Some argue that public galleries should take money from anyone (even the devil!). Such an amoral view completely dismisses widespread public concern and is not in keeping with good ethical practices. For example, the Tate Ethical Policy (due for review in May 2013) states that Tate will not accept donations when the donor "has acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds, for example when funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct."

Arts & Business (a commerce and culture partnerships organisation) and others argue that sponsorship should be taken from any legally registered company. The promotion of this kind of relativism sidesteps any ethical considerations and also ignores the views of the very citizens that public institutions need to be accountable to. Arms manufacturers and tobacco companies, once proud sponsors of many a sporting and cultural event, lost this marketing opportunity due to public outcry. Both remain legal businesses but are no longer considered acceptable sponsorship partners. As we transition towards a low carbon economy it is inevitable that oil companies will find themselves increasingly marginalised in terms of partnership and sponsorship.

There has to be some sort of consideration about the ethics of particular sponsors – and that discussion needs to keep happening according to the changing context of the world we live in. One of the biggest recent contextual changes we have experienced is our awareness of climate change being the greatest threat we face as a planet, and the role that oil companies play in peddling the product that is taking us all to the edge of disaster. It is no longer appropriate for BP to sponsor Tate, albeit understandable that this relationship started when it did in different times 20 years ago.

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"I'd much rather the money be in the hands of the arts than a petroleum company, so anything they want to give, let's take it" - Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran keyboardist

Is it better that BP spends money on Tate than spend it on drilling for more oil? This is a complete misunderstanding of the reasons BP give money. The company is not doing it because it is an art loving corporation, although the undoubted passion for the arts of individuals like ex-BP CEO John Browne help to create that illusion. It is doing it to buy the company a perception of social legitimacy through association with arts institutions. This surreptitious rebranding is achieved through a tiny amount of sponsorship money, detracting from the reality of their appalling record on human rights, safety and environmental disasters. By accepting money from BP, Tate is compliant in greenwash and aiding BP in their work exploiting and selling oil. The money that BP spends on Tate and others is, in a very real sense, money that they are spending on drilling for more oil.

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"BP as a company is looking at renewable energy as well as using fossil fuels and using oil" - Nicholas Serota, Tate director

In the words of Greenpeace director John Sauven, "BP's alternative energy business is a plaything of former boss Lord Browne that has been consigned to the corporate rubbish tip." From the point of Tony Hayward's succession of Lord John Browne, BP steadily sold off renewable assets. Hayward described the company he took over in 2007 derisively as having "too many people that were working to save the world." Investment in renewables has continued to diminish under current CEO Bob Dudley.

Serota's turn of phrase "using up fossil fuels" is an accurate description of the company's extraction projects, into ever more risky and remote regions of the planet, the details of which are covered in Profiling BP & Shell (p. 38-43). The true value of Tate to BP is displayed in Serota's comment; despite having no references or minimal grasp of BP operations, Serota is acting as a prominent cog in the company's PR machine, propping up its false projection of itself as 'Beyond Petroleum.'

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"I don't think there's any way we can say the arts scene has been distorted by corporate money" - Colin Tweedy, chief executive, Arts and Business

Contemporary art cannot be judged without also judging the circumstances surrounding the production of art, just as historical art is viewed with context in mind. Most credible players in the art world acknowledge that corporate sponsorship does distort the arts.

Chin-tao Wu, in her book Privatising Culture, demonstrates how corporations exert a quiet control when sponsoring as well as buying art. To argue that corporate sponsorship does not interfere in the arts, is naive in the face of explicit or implicit business needs and power dynamics.

Playwright Mark Ravenhill has outlined how this takes place in the theatre:

"Making art is presenting a gift to the world. Business is the act of making a profit from the world: the two things are in direct contradiction… Relationships with sponsors distort the arts in two ways. Corporate business is keen on community projects, and theatres have often undertaken work they do not have a commitment to – because sponsors want to be seen working with the homeless or another group. They want to be associated with the biggest openings. It makes arts organisations contradictory: one evening they are putting on corporate events, the next it's a play with refugees."

There have been a number of incidents involving censorship at major cultural institutions. In 2010 a Tate Modern workshop on art and activism, 'Disobedience Makes History', saw participants being told not to explore any interventions against Tate sponsors. Although no actions against Tate or BP had been planned, participants felt that it was unacceptable, especially in mind of the workshop title, for Tate to attempt to censor them. The workshop group decided to collectively disobey this missive and Liberate Tate was born.

More recently, Platform were told not to display leaflets critical of Shell whilst participating in an event at the Shell sponsored South Bank Centre. If high-profile cultural institutions such as Tate and South Bank Centre are jittery about offending sponsors, imagine what kind of censorship might lie ahead for others? This is not straightforward ideological censorship, but marketised censorship that ultimately maintains the link between sponsorship and advertising at the expense of freedom of speech.