Should art institutions take money from oil companies? A core of activists in London have answered with an emphatic, "No." And they won a recent victory when the Tate Gallery in London was ordered by a court to disclose the amount of money the museum received from BP between 1990 to 2006. It turned out that BP’s annual contribution during those years was an average of £225,000 (US$340,000). Critics sneered at BP and the Tate, pointing out that it was barely distinguishable in the museum’s overall budget while the oil and gas giant received tons of exposure for its annual donation.
The disclosure, after a three-year legal fight, highlights the ongoing controversy over whether museums and cultural institutions should accept money from oil companies. Activist organizations such as Platform insist such grants such as those made by BP give these companies credibility that is largely undeserved. Then there is the other point of view, voiced by those including Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, who downplays any benefits companies such as BP score by sponsoring the arts. During the Deepwater Horizon crisis, which was also during a time the arts were facing budget cuts throughout the United Kingdom, Jones defended galleries such as the Tate, writing, “If they can get money from Satan himself, they should take it.”
But for Platform and its allies, the acceptance of money from the likes of BP has far-reaching consequences. In addition to the climate change argument, these activists insist such sponsorships mean the Tate, National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum and the Royal Opera House are turning a blind eye to what they see as the devastating effects the oil and gas industry. The effects of tar sands extraction on native communities in Canada, the expansion of oil production in the Arctic and, of course, the negligence that resulted in the deaths at the Deepwater Horizon platform are all too important for museum administrators and boards to ignore. The fact that the Tate’s ethics committee declined to take any stance on BP’s sponsorship during the Gulf of Mexico fiasco, saying it was beyond the museum’s “charitable objectives,” in particular comes across to many as egregious.
Arts sponsorship, however, has long been supported by dubious sources — from the monarchies of centuries ago to the modern industries that have long stirred up controversy. Any cultural institution linked to the Rockefeller name has at minimum a faint tie to the oil industry. Detroit’s Institute of Arts, one of the best art museums in the U.S., exists in a large part thanks to the largess of the automobile sector. Art museums and temporary exhibits are often funded by companies and organizations with which anyone could find fault, from the commercial airliners based in the Middle East such as Emirates or Qatar Airways, to the giant beverage companies including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.
For companies involved in the arts, it is about community involvement, branding and building relationships with governments and nonprofits. But to groups such as Platform, the oil companies’ impact on human rights and climate, as well as their influence on governments, is all the more reason for cultural organizations to stop taking their cash.
Which side are you on?
Image credit: Tate.org
Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked and lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.