Who pays for art? It is our responsibility to look at the hidden costs of corporate sponsors

- 1 December 2013

oil spill - smallThe names of corporations, particularly those in the oil industry, have been woven into our cultural institutions, through projects such as the ‘BP Walk through British Art’, the ‘Shell Classic International’ concert series and the ‘BP Big Screen’. With logos beside Constable’s paintings in Tate Britain or adorning concert programmes at the Southbank Centre, these corporations can gain credibility by presenting themselves as philanthropists, progressive champions of the arts, when the reality is often quite different.

Corporations involved in controversial activity, such as weapons manufacturing or oil extraction, require what is termed a ‘social licence’ to operate &#8210 the public perception that they are ethical and responsible. Sponsoring the arts is a cheap and effective way of shaping that perception, acquired with donations that are negligible in their corporate budgets of billions. If Shell’s condemnation by Amnesty International for alleged human rights abuses in the Niger Delta lingered in the media spotlight, or the UN report into their uncleared oil spills in the region, high-risk drilling projects in the Arctic would be difficult for them to pursue. So-called ‘reputation managers’ know all too well the value of arts sponsorship for creating a necessary smokescreen.

However, it is often argued that despite these ethical issues, the arts sector needs corporate sponsors in order to survive, particularly in a period of austerity. In reality, the contributions made by BP to the Tate and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and by Shell to the Southbank, often make up small proportions of their overall budgets. In recent years, around 3-5% of the Southbank Centre’s budget has come from corporate sponsorship. (In 2009, Shell gave roughly seventeen times the amount the Southbank gained in total corporate sponsorship to the Nigerian Security Forces &#8210 around £44.2 million). More recently, taxpayers’ money has been appropriated, as Tate Britain’s new ‘BP Walk through British Art’ is largely comprised of paintings collected over years of public funding, not by BP’s contributions. In this light, the claim that oil corporations are generous philanthropists is problematic.

There is a need for strong ethical red lines as ill-judged deals have the potential to tarnish our valued cultural institutions. Ties to the tobacco industry have largely disappeared in recent years and in 2012 the National Gallery decided to end its relationship with the arms manufacturer Finmecannica. So why is it that oil sponsorship persists?

BP’s and Shell’s business plans involve seeking new sources of oil, despite the insistence of climate scientists that we need to leave 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change. Both corporations are in the process of extracting ‘tar sands’ oil in Canada &#8210 the most carbon intensive fossil fuel. Vast areas of woodland are cleared, the earth excavated and bitumen extracted. Ponds of poisonous effluent regularly leak into rivers, which once provided the water supply for Indigenous peoples and now damages their traditional lands. Our arts institutions have become part of a smokescreen so that the rights of Indigenous peoples, future generations and the planet can be transgressed. When do we take a stand?

The composer Matthew Herbert has argued that, ‘there’s a really unhealthy point where music and art, instead of trying to prick the bubble, become the bubble’. The Southbank’s Shell Classic International concerts have featured performers and pieces that raise powerful questions about social justice, from the Simón Bolívar orchestra to Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Out of respect for the art and the artists, these questions should be what inform decisions on funding deals. What would Britten’s response be to Shell’s payments to armed groups? What would be Turner’s take on BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill?

Anti-oil sponsorship campaigners recognise this, with ‘Liberate Tate’ and the ‘Reclaim Shakespeare Company’ using performance art and theatre as the vehicle for their message. Another group, ‘Shell Out Sounds’, recently gave a pop-up choral performance before a Shell Classic concert began at the Royal Festival Hall. They were met with applause, a clear sign that audiences are agreeing with the ethical questions these groups are raising.

To view the ethos of a sponsor as separate from the artwork sponsored is, by extension, to suggest that that artwork is irrelevant to our contemporary situation, when the reverse is true. Claudio Abbado once said: ‘My line is very clear. I am for freedom. Everything that is not for freedom, I protest.’ If perpetrators of injustice finance our concert halls or art galleries, it has everything to do with us. We, as audiences and artists, must make our line clear, so that we can enjoy art free of ethical contradiction.

Chris Garrard is a composer, musicologist and campaigner who recently completed his DPhil at the University of Oxford

Counter-point: Arts sponsorship is the one good thing bad companies do &#8210 let’s not talk them out of it &#8210 by Andrew Mellor

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