Should Big Oil back Big Art?

Galleries and museums face mounting pressure over the ethics of corporate sponsorship

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Somewhere in London this weekend the rebel theatre group “BP or Not BP?” will stage its most ambitious protest to date. It will happen unannounced, without publicity. “Only then do you create some noise,” says Chris Garrard, a 29-year-old activist with a beard and a look of permanent dishevelment, despite the suit jacket. “Only then do you make people’s eyes pop.”

The question of who should and who shouldn’t support the arts has raged for centuries. But today there seem to be more bursts of outrage than ever, at least in London and New York. In recent years BP or Not BP?, along with eight other campaign groups that make up Art Not Oil, a coalition of protest groups seeking to end sponsorship of the arts by oil companies, has made so many “eyes pop” it is hardly surprising that Arts Council England recently felt compelled to publish guidelines for galleries on managing disturbances.

Nearly every major art and cultural institution in the UK has become wearily familiar with Art Not Oil’s stunts — or, as they call them, “creative interventions”. A host of corporate sponsors have come into their sights. But ever since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 it is BP, rather than mining or arms companies or other longtime arts sponsors, that has found itself thrust into the centre of the debate over the ethics of sponsorship: should we resist relationships between companies and cultural institutions or do we have to accept that art needs corporate backing to thrive?

Memorable protests have included the time last year when activists tattooed each other at Tate Britain with the CO2 concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere; the “exorcism” of the “evil spirit of BP” in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2011; the “splashmob” of 200 performers, dressed as mermaids and a BP-branded sea monster, that flooded the British Museum in July. The list goes on.

And the tensions increase. Some in the cultural sector talk of artists and curators — as well as sponsors — feeling under siege by the activists who resort to a range of tactics, from freedom of information requests to impromptu protests. Actor Mark Rylance says he has almost “inadvertently” become a spokesman for Art Not Oil since he won an Oscar this year. “I have said for years I’m against BP sponsoring our cultural institutions,” he tells me. “But only now does whatever I say make headlines. I’m aware that I don’t know everything and this is complicated.”

Chris Garrard of BP or not BP? in rehearsal in London for the group's weekend protest © Harry Mitchell

A classical archaeologist at the British Museum who wishes to remain anonymous says the media attention has been “stifling”. He adds: “We’re civil servants, meant to be working for an educational institution. Yet corporate culture is filtering down, and it feels like we can’t speak out against our sponsors.” All the while the protesters keep coming. A security guard at the British Museum says the new guidelines never leave his pocket. “The hippies like it here!”

Garrard smiles when I relay the story. “It’s just like that quote: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.’”

The fervour at a rehearsal in central London a couple of days before this weekend’s planned event reflects the confidence of Art Not Oil. About 40 people will take part in a “ritualistic performance” lasting five hours. Danny Chivers, a performance poet, 38, runs through proceedings. Whereas some of the protests have “pushed the irony button as hard as possible”, this will be “solemn, ceremonial and durational”.

Jess Worth, a 42-year-old full-time activist, argues the classic purist case for the prosecution: “Art and culture are compromised if the financing of them is unethical.” Companies such as BP, she adds, shouldn’t be able to use cultural institutions to “greenwash” their image.

“Galleries and museums have long engaged in the exchange of cultural and corporate capital: they get cash, the corporations look good. At least that’s the idea. But what happens to those corporations when we start making them look anything but nice?”

As one of the most significant British cultural sponsors, BP is the prime target. When Tate announced BP had ended its 27-year association with the gallery in March, Art Not Oil claimed responsibility. They did so again a month later, when BP ended its sponsorship of the Edinburgh International Festival after 34 years. “The dominoes are starting to fall,” Worth said at the time.

Rehearsals in London for BP or not BP?'s weekend protest © Harry Mitchell

BP, however, denied the campaign was a factor, instead citing a “challenging business environment”. After roughly four years at more than $100 a barrel, in 2014 the price of oil tumbled, falling below $30 earlier this year before recovering to about $50. In July, BP renewed its sponsorship of four major arts institutions. The National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company will receive £7.5m over five years from 2018, maintaining a relationship with BP that, for three of them, dates back more than 20 years.

But those involved in making partnerships fear the relentless nature of the protests could deter future sponsorship. And at a time of swingeing cuts to the UK arts budget — almost 30 per cent in real terms since 2010 — this could have damaging repercussions. Also, the departure of dozens of non-doms over the imminent loss of tax advantages may have depleted sponsorship budgets.

Lord Browne, chief executive of BP between 1995 and 2007, who is now the Tate’s chairman of trustees, arguably understands the complexity of the debate better than anyone. “Most corporates recognise they can’t buy love,” he tells me. “But I sincerely hope they don’t react too instantly and say, ‘Well, if you don’t play with me I’ll go somewhere else.’ Because negativity first eats away at the staff, at their esprit de corps, and then at the corporation’s ability to use the institution as a platform for its brand and marketing.”

Rehearsals in London for BP or not BP?'s weekend protest © Harry Mitchell

Sir Richard Lambert, a former director-general of the CBI and former editor of the FT who is chairman of the British Museum, is also concerned. “I don’t think BP will drop its sponsorship but there’s a risk, clearly,” he says. “The protests must be raising question marks.”


Today pretty much every art form has to run a three-legged race with the sponsors that support its production. After all, big art costs big money. In many respects, of course, it has always been thus. Without the support of the Medici family of bankers of the 14th and 15th centuries, there is a chance we would not have had the art of Michelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci. Alfred Nobel, an arms manufacturer, was also keen to change his reputation following his astonishment at reading his newspaper obituary, headlined “The merchant of death is dead”. (It was actually his brother who had died.) So in 1895 he devoted his fortune to creating prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”.

But it took until the Thatcher decade for Britain’s cultural institutions to fully embrace American-style enterprise culture. Tobacco sponsorship was so prevalent in 1980s Britain that three big London orchestras were supported by cigarette companies, with critics dubbing the London Philharmonic “the du Maurier band”, according to the academic Chin-Tao Wu, who is a leading critic of what she sees as the corporatisation of cultural institutions. In Privatising Culture, she writes that by the end of the 1980s, whether in Britain or America, art museums had become another “public-relations outpost for corporations . . . 

“Across the Atlantic, Lexus sedans were regularly displayed outside museums and concert halls . . . while in Britain both the Royal Academy and Royal Festival Hall converted their courtyards into car showrooms for corporate sponsors.” Of course, corporate sponsorship has benefited artists and their careers. Damien Hirst, without equal in suspending dead animals in formaldehyde, has from the beginning prospered from corporate sponsorship. “At Goldsmiths College, they really encouraged breaking down barriers and finding new ways to do things, and sponsorship is all part of that,” he has said. Property development company Olympia & York sponsored his student show Freeze; since then, Beck’s, Häagen-Dazs and other brands have been associated with his work.

Rehearsals in London for BP or not BP?'s weekend protest © Harry Mitchell

Clearly art will continue to depend — as it always has — heavily on corporations. So why is this protest movement gaining momentum? For many of the protesters, who are mostly in their twenties and thirties, the tipping point came after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Art Not Oil had been together six years by that point, its campaigning often falling on deaf ears. That changed on the evening of June 28 2010 when, with oil still pouring into the ocean from the April spill, Tate hosted a party to mark 20 years of BP sponsorship. “That party really brought the issues into focus for a lot of the general public,” Worth contends. Garrard adds: “Corporate sponsors often promote their brands against subjects their activities are related to — in big oil’s case that often means the environment. But in light of the damage they are doing, accepting their money should be deemed beyond the pale.”

Where does he draw the line? He cites BMW rather than BP being a sponsor at Tate Modern as progress. “See, museums and galleries can cope just fine without oil companies.” When I point out that BMWs use oil and pollute the environment, Garrard goes quiet. “At least it’s a step in the right direction,” he says eventually. “Yes, it’s a sliding scale, but moral relativism might render us inert.” Browne highlights that he and the Tate have grappled with these issues for a long time. “Which is why it is so important for us to have an ethics committee [currently chaired by FT editor Lionel Barber]. Without a doubt it becomes very tricky when you say, ‘I’ll take money from Joe but not from Susan’,” he says.

“We make sure the money comes from legally appropriate sources,” he adds. “Sponsors must adhere to our guidelines. We act in line with government policy. For example, we won’t take money from a tobacco company because it would provide the basis for promotion of tobacco. And promotion of tobacco goods is not allowed under government policy.”

Garrard — called a “freedom of information warrior” by several protest members at the rehearsal, one of whom tells me he has filed more than 50 FOI requests in 18 months — claims Britain’s most revered cultural institutions have bent to BP’s will, allowing the group to influence curatorial decision-making.

Lambert bats away the suggestion as “completely incorrect”. “BP has never sought influence,” he insists. “And we have a formidable bunch of trustees who are all very conscious of their responsibilities to the museum.” Browne adds, “We would never dream of letting our supporters direct our editorial ear.”

The critics of corporate sponsorship point out that it could be anonymous. What would be the problem of that from a business point of view? “Just imagine a corporation trying to justify that to its shareholders!” retorts Lambert.


BP is far from the only company to face scrutiny. Other controversial partnerships include Boeing, the US aerospace and defence company, sponsoring the Afghanistan Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Protesters also lambasted the Science Museum for allowing Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil to sponsor its £6m children’s gallery, Wonderlab. Art Not Oil activists attended the opening, unfurling a white carpet, symbolising the Arctic, and then pouring black liquid over it, suggesting the damage Statoil’s drilling could cause.

Rehearsals in London for BP or not BP?'s weekend protest © Harry Mitchell

More than 50 prominent academics, scientists and politicians — with 40,000 others — signed an online petition calling for the Science Museum to annul the deal. And it’s not just museums that are being pilloried. Protesters have disrupted performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company and events at the Royal Festival Hall — and say they will go on until the arts establishment rethinks.

A growing number of artists are seeking at least to be consulted over what logo will appear next to their work. Among them is Rylance, who last month spoke out strongly against BP’s sponsorship of the RSC, saying he would not work for the theatre company while it took money from the oil giant.

I meet the 56-year-old in his dressing room at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, where he is starring in a play about two friends who go fishing in Minnesota on a frozen lake that’s beginning to melt.

Rylance enters the room in costume — Eskimo hat, bright orange waterproof trousers — and hands me a letter he received from someone who used to work at BP. “They’re angry, telling me I don’t realise how much good work BP does. But to say we can’t move away from oil and gas strikes me as being unreasonable. UK oil companies benefit from billions of pounds in tax breaks and subsidies; they take much more from the public purse than they are giving back.”

Seeing public cultural spaces dominated by oil company branding is, he says with a theatrical flourish, “A clash as large as William the Conqueror coming into our land”. The academic Chin-Tao Wu has pointed out that, in the early 1990s, for BP’s logo to appear year-round on the Tate’s banners and on the covers of publications for its New Displays collection, it had to pay £150,000 — a sum that, back then, would have bought you less than three minutes of advertising on primetime television. For the amount BP pays today to sponsor similar kinds of shows, it would get still less primetime advertising on TV — not even a minute.

Although they insist otherwise, the question is whether UK’s cultural institutions are selling themselves too cheaply. In July, Tate was ordered to publish its sponsorship figures by the Information Tribunal following pressure from Platform, one of the groups in Art Not Oil. It was revealed that during 2007-2011, Tate received £350,000 most years from BP, less than 0.5 per cent of its annual budget. The figures tell a similar story at other big cultural institutions.

The protesters argue that through sponsorship, corporations can present themselves as sharing a humanist value system with museums and galleries. “That should come at a much higher price,” says Garrard.

Lord Browne, chief executive of BP between 1995 and 2007 and now the Tate’s chairman of trustees: 'Most corporates recognise they can’t buy love' © Charlie Bibby

When I relay this idea to Lambert, he immediately rejects it. “That’s the one thing that really annoys me more than anything else about all this. We are not accepting trivial amounts. Our funding has been cut. We don’t have any risk capital. And it is very costly to put on a blockbuster show. We need to raise the money from somewhere.”

Browne concurs: “It’s very difficult to get money that is predictable; money that people commit to you over a long period of time.”

The future of cultural sponsorship in the UK hangs in the balance. If the protests continue at this rate and at this scale, the oil corporations might pull their sponsorship, or institutions might be forced to turn away their money. Neither option looks like progress.

John Sunyer is commissioning editor of FT Life & Arts

Artwork by Omer Knaz; photographs by Harry Mitchell

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