In the age of Trump, Big Art must cut off Big Oil!

| 29th November 2016
A recent demonstration in the British Museum to denounce BP's sponsorship. Photo: Kristian Buus / Art Not Oil.
A recent demonstration in the British Museum to denounce BP's sponsorship. Photo: Kristian Buus / Art Not Oil.
With Trump denying climate change and threatening to reject the Paris Agreement, it's more important than ever for society to hold a firm ethical line, writes Chris Garrard. The last thing we need is our most revered museums and galleries muddying the water by courting the sponsorship of leading climate criminals.
Giving legitimacy to the fossil fuel industry when the impacts of climate change are intensifying every day should now be viewed the same way as tobacco or arms. This is about drawing an ethical red line and marking out oil sponsorship as unacceptable.

'Should Big Oil back Big Art?' was the question splashed across the FT's Arts section last weekend, as its top story delved into the issue of oil sponsorship of the arts.

It comes at a key moment - this year, Tate and Edinburgh International Festival announced the end of their BP sponsorship deals and over 300 arts organisations and artists have now committed to not take funding from the fossil fuel industry.

These are all strong signs of progress towards an arts sector embracing ethics and boldly addressing climate change. But some are still dragging their feet.

Coinciding with the FT's story, 40 performers from 8 countries held a poignant creative protest throughout the British Museum's iconic galleries. It marked the close of the British Museum's latest BP-sponsored exhibition, the ironically titled, 'Sunken Cities'.

By putting BP and the consequences of rising seas together in a single exhibition, the museum invented a whole new form of climate denial.

But with a genuine climate denier poised to enter the White House, it has become even more crucial that the British Museum makes clear which side of history it's on. When you're in the business of protecting the past for future generations, the answer should be obvious.

Unanswered ethical questions

In July, it was announced the BP had renewed its sponsorship deals with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Unsurprisingly, that announcement was met with protest - 200 artists and cultural figures signed a letter in The Times the following week, calling for the deal to be dropped.

And last month, theatrical protest group 'BP or not BP?' led 250 people in an underwater-themed 'splashmob' at the British Museum, with singing mermaids and a 40-foot sea-monster puppet, smuggled past security.

In the face of ethical questions being raised about the renewal of BP's sponsorship of the British Museum, Sir Richard Lambert, the museum's Chair, claimed that he has "a formidable bunch of trustees who are all very conscious of their responsibilities to the museum."

Perhaps one of the most important of those responsibilities is to 'stand guard' over the museum's reputation, as trustee and ex-Chair of the Arts Council, Dame Liz Forgan put it. Why then, were the museum's trustees were not involved in the decision to renew BP's sponsorship?

And how could the museum describe the decision to renew the deal as "straightforward" when it had become the biggest controversy facing the museum's new director?

A call for ethical sponsorship

In a recent speech, the Chair of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette, emphasised that the boards of arts organisations need to make sure they are engaging in "ethical sponsorship" and demonstrate "clarity, consistency and transparency". When it comes to BP, the British Museum has been unclear, inconsistent and resisted transparency.

The Chair of the Tate's trustees, John Browne, told the FT "how important" it is that the gallery has an ethics committee, an interesting claim given that he was BP's CEO from 1995 to 2007. He added, "We would never dream of letting our supporters direct our editorial ear."

But with your ex-CEO as Chair, critical curators were unlikely to be a major problem for BP. A damning report by Art Not Oil published earlier this year painted a different picture. But if even Tate, under Browne's chairmanship, recognises the necessity of an ethics committee, why is the British Museum without one?

If the British Museum had dug into the claims made against BP when its sponsorship was up for renewal, they would have unmasked a company with close ties to human rights violations, actively blocking crucial climate legislation and drilling for fossil fuels that we cannot afford to burn. Or, to put it another way, a company whose values do not align with those of a museum that supposedly holds a collection "for every citizen of the world".

Undergoing a process of so-called 'due diligence' isn't just a good idea - it is specifically advised in the Museums Association's Code of Ethics, which the museum is obliged to follow.

Philanthropy or cheap advertising?

But Richard Lambert, like other spokespersons for the museum, has continued to dodge questions about BP's record, arguing that "We need to raise the money from somewhere."

This excuse is wearing thin though. BP actually turned down a direct request made by Lambert to help fund the museum's new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, while just two of the Sainsbury Family Trusts collectively gave £25 million to the project and the Heritage Lottery Fund gave £10 million.

It puts BP's £2 million-a-year sponsorship spend, divided between four cultural institutions, into perspective. And BP's new sponsorship deal has seen that spend cut by a quarter. Can the British Museum, the UK's most visited cultural institution, really not attract this small proportion of its income - less than 1% - from anywhere other than a major corporate criminal?

In 2015, BP received around £254 million from the UK taxpayer in the form of government hand-outs. In reality, it is as if BP is giving less than 1% of that taxpayer cash back to a handful of iconic institutions where it can best burnish its brand.

It's bizarre for BP to then claim it represents the best of corporate support for the arts when this is clearly not philanthropy. BP is not providing the vital funding that underpins long-term roles and research in the cultural sector nor helping to keep local museums open in a period of swingeing government cuts.

Drawing a red line

The shift away from fossil fuels is a reality that the British Museum and others need to get on board with. Just last week, the Evening Standard published a lead business story titled "They're going to tank: Eight good reasons to bale out of Big Oil".

But the question for those cultural institutions taking fossil fuel money is fundamentally an ethical one. While there is a broader debate to be had about the role of corporate sponsorship of the arts, this is about drawing an ethical red line and marking out oil sponsorship as unacceptable.

Giving legitimacy to the fossil fuel industry when the impacts of climate change are intensifying every day should now be viewed the same way as tobacco or arms sponsorship.

The next President of the US denies that those impacts are driven by human activity. With bigger battles to fight to protect the planet, it's time that Big Art stopped backing Big Oil.



Chris Garrard is a member of 'BP or not BP?' which is part of the Art Not Oil coalition of groups that campaigns against fossil fuel funding of arts and cultural institutions. He was the lead author of Art Not Oil's report, 'BP's Cultural Sponsorship: A Corrupting Influence'. Chris is also a composer and has written music about social justice and the environment.

For more, visit and @ArtNotOil

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