Tate - come clean about BP sponsorship!

| 9th April 2014
Liberate Tate's Parts Per Million protest at Tate Britain, 23rd November 2013. Photo: Martin LeSanto-Smith.

Liberate Tate's Parts Per Million protest at Tate Britain, 23rd November 2013. Photo: Martin LeSanto-Smith.

BP and other fossil fuel companies love to sponsor high art to preserve their 'public licence to operate', writes Kevin Smith. But why is Tate so keen to take the relatively trivial sums on offer. And why the unbending information blackout?
While the Deepwater Horizon blowout was still gushing crude in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010, Tate held a party to celebrate 20 years of BP sponsorship.

Almost a year ago gallery-goers at Tate Britain were the first to take in the sumptuous re-hang of some of the UK's more important artists throughout history, as the BP Walkthrough British Art opened to the public for the first time.

On the same day, scientists at Mauna Loa in Hawaii registered that atmospheric carbon has passed the level of 400 parts per million for the first time in 3 million years, marking another disturbing milestone in the progression of climate change.

Great art galleries are complicit in climate crime

The UK's major art institutions have become more deeply implicated in the destabilisation of the climate through long standing sponsorship arrangements with oil companies like BP and Shell.

While the Deepwater Horizon blowout was still gushing crude in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010, Tate held a party to celebrate 20 years of BP sponsorship.

These arrangements are actively pursued and crafted by oil companies as part of their core business model. Far from philanthropy, they contribute to the construction of the 'social licence to operate' - the means by which destructive companies continue to operate despite the controversies surrounding them.

In 2013, a number of representatives from the Gulf Coast in the USA wrote an open letter in which they said:

"While BP has been trying in court to prevent compensation payments from being made to those whose lives have been devastated by the spill, its also embarked on a massive publicity campaign to sponsor cultural and sporting events in order to convince the world what a good corporate citizen it is.

"Sponsorship deals with prestigious arts institutions like Tate contribute and reinforce the power-base of oil companies like BP, which in turn are able to ride roughshod over communities like ours that they have devastated.

"We're convinced that the average gallery-goer in the UK would prefer that the Tate found sponsorship that wasn't directly linked to the devastation of our ecosystems and livelihoods."

And the galleries are fighting tooth and nail

It's no surprise therefore that Tate would be feeling sensitive about its dealings with BP after having been the subject of so much criticism from artists, environmentalists, Tate Members and gallery goers.

But are they so sensitive that they would fight tooth and nail over the course of two and half years to prevent internal discussions from entering the public domain?

While the Deepwater Horizon blowout was still gushing crude in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010, Tate held a party to celebrate 20 years of BP sponsorship.

Working with Request Initiative and our lawyers from Leigh Day and Julianne Morrison from Monckton Chambers, we've been involved in a lengthy legal struggle to get Tate to reveal discussions that took place at the Tate Ethics Committee in 2011 when it was discussing whether or not to renew BP sponsorship, despite the public outcry.

A month ago, an independent body set up to make legal rulings over information requests ruled that Tate was breaking information law on numerous counts by refusing to disclose the information. But Tate decided to appeal, rather than reveal.

In 2008, Tate boss Nick Serota said: "We're at the forefront of being as open as we possibly can". But whoever has been dealing with this information request doesn't seem to have gotten the memo.

Bizarrely, one of the reasons Tate has given not to reveal the info is that releasing this information would cause such public protest that it would be likely to endanger the health and safety of the public.

Why is Tate so dismissive of its members?

Behind the Orwellian attempt to limit dissent through the control of knowledge lurks the hint of an admission that there is something wrong and shameful about the nature of the BP relationship that it needs to be kept out of the public domain.

One of the prevalent narratives about BP sponsorship is that Tate depends so heavily on money from BP that it couldn't possibly turn it down.

But by our calculations on the limited information that is available, we estimate that BP's dirty money represents about 0.5% of Tate's total annual turnover.

The money that Tate gets annually from its membership scheme is far greater, which is why its strange that it would deal quite so dismissively from appeals made by those members to discuss the BP issue.

Far from putting us off, Tate's appeal is only whetting our appetite for the end result. There's an important public debate that needs to take place about arts institutions, oil money and the threat of climate change.

Tate is not only trying to ignore the public debate. It's trying to make sure it doesn't take place. It's up to all of us to make sure they fail.



Kevin Smith campaigns on oil sponsorship of the arts with Platform, an NGO that companies arts, activism and education in projects that address the human rights and environmental impacts of UK oil companies. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kevinjgsmith.


Liberate Tate / Kristian Buus.

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9KlX2mPrRE

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