On October 2nd of this year, the aptly named campaign group BP or not BP?, whose mission was to end the oil firm BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company, celebrated a hard-earned victory. After seven years of consistent campaigning, alongside a boycott of the company from high-profile individual actors such as Mark Rylance, the RSC decided to cut short their five-year contract with BP at the end of this year. In response, BP or not BP? issued this statement:
We’re over the moon to see the RSC understanding and acting on the reality of the climate emergency. Oil companies like BP have no place in our museums, galleries and theatres.
They are not the only activist group opposed to fossil-fuel companies’ continued sponsorship of the arts, nor is the RSC by any means the only cultural institution coming under fire from protestors for accepting such donations. The call for more ethical corporate sponsorship is being echoed throughout the arts world. The British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House are just a handful of the prestigious bastions of the British art establishment under pressure to review their corporate sponsorship partnerships with oil and gas firms. In 2016, BP announced plans to invest £7.5 million in British art institutions from 2018, but in the era of Extinction Rebellion, these institutions could find that such partnerships leave them out of touch with the values of their visitors and facing a pressing moral dilemma.
The resistance to such sponsorship from British artists has been increasingly relentless, collaborative and, as expected, creative. One protest group with a particularly high-profile artistic output is Liberate Tate. Founded in 2010, the group of activists mobilised a spirit of ‘creative disobedience’ to complicate the Tate institution’s relationship with BP and push them into dropping the sponsorship agreement, which did in fact come to an end in May 2016. Their unsanctioned performances have seen the installation of a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade in the Tate Modern’s turbine gallery, and a simulated oil spill at the institution’s summer gala in response to the environmentally disastrous Deepwater Horizon Oil spill in 2010.
Such activist groups accuse oil companies of using cultural sponsorship to essentially purchase the ‘social licence to operate’. Stripping back the PR veneer of this phrase, this entails boosting their brand’s reputation through the association with cultural goods and the establishment of influential relationships, a practice which allows them free reign to legitimately expand environmentally damaging operations in a time of climate crisis. However, seen in another light the very nature of their controversial commercial activity prompts oil and gas companies to donate more generously to cultural institutions, since they perhaps serve to benefit more from such positive marketing than other ‘cleaner’ enterprises.
Indeed, the relationship between environmental sustainability and financial decision-making in the arts remains a vexed one. Government spending in the arts saw a cut of almost 30% between 2010 and 2016, and the question remains whether innovation in the arts can be sustained without this backing. Britain’s cultural institutions are renowned for their pioneering and creative stance, and the artistic output is second to none. If we remove oil and gas firms from the equation, are there alternative sources of sponsorship with the capacity or desire to replace these environmentally damaging corporations?
Examining these questions in light of the controversy around the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award is revealing. Marketing itself as the most prestigious portrait award in the world, the sought-after accolade recently celebrated is 40th year at the Gallery and its 30th year of BP sponsorship. At his presentation of the 2019 award, the CEO of BP Bob Dudley addressed the current sponsorship controversy:
“We respect different opinions and welcome discussion, even debate, about our involvement. But, let’s also remember there are many different points of view.”
Yet these different points of view are becoming more polarised in tandem with increasing public awareness of the climate crisis. BP asserts that its financial support to the gallery has enabled five million people to enjoy the award free of charge since 1990 and has given artists the necessary support to pursue their passion. However, prior to BP taking up the sponsorship for this award, it was sponsored by none other than British American Tobacco. Obviously such a partnership would be unthinkable these days. In 2016, there was outcry from medical experts against the art establishment’s lingering ties with tobacco companies, and it seems that the same fate could await big oil firms.
Public opinion and government priorities can change dramatically over 30 years, and the day could be approaching where government policy regarding the promotion of oil and gas declares it to be morally unacceptable. Until that day however, cultural institutions that declare themselves in favour of environmental sustainability while accepting donations from companies whose practices actively harm the environment, face accusations of hypocrisy. In an age of global climate protest and social media activism, these accusations cannot be brushed away lightly. Many agree that the art arena is one in which the corporate world should not be at the forefront of the story. However, these protests against corporate sponsorship will most likely gain more mainstream attention, particularly from young visitors, a consideration that should be taken seriously by cultural entities if they wish to remain relevant and respected in the arts world and in today’s society.