Campaigns To Get Cultural Institutions To Say No To Big Oil Money Tarnishes The Arts
A TOP TATE galleries official has sided with critics of the organisation’s sponsorship deal with BP, saying “When activists protest at, for example, events like the Tate summer party, that is a thoroughly good thing. It allows me to say: BP is a disgrace.”
The Independent reports that the official, Patrick Brill, who goes by the pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith, is cited in a new publication issued by campaign groups Liberate Tate, Art Not Oil and Platform. Brill is one of 13 trustees who oversees the Tate galleries’ acquisitions and strategies. So his support for activists who oppose the acceptance of ‘oil money’ is a political victory of sorts for those activists.
The 2010 summer party Brill referred to in the report made headlines after a group of black-clad, Liberate Tate activists crashed it, pouring buckets of molasses over the party entrance. This was in protest against the party sponsor BP’s ventures, like its oil sands project in Canada, and its actions in the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Other groups have staged similar interventions and happenings since.
Campaigns to get arts institutions to stop accepting funding from big businesses are based on a view that such money corrupts art organisations and allows Evil Corporations to pose as worthy institutions. In truth, artists and cultural institutions have always relied on funding from individuals and organisations whose agendas or outlooks some might find unsavoury – from wealthy elites and royals to state bodies and religious institutions.
Furthermore, if activist groups like those behind the new publication, Not If But When: Culture Beyond Oil, have their way the cultural output of Britain would be so much poorer. After all, BP alone spends over £1million a year sponsoring major UK arts institutions, such as the Royal Opera House, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Almeida theatre and the Science and Natural History Museums. An end to corporate funding would also turn art into more of an elite pursuit of the few as arts institutions would have a hard time keeping their doors open for free.
Chris Sands of Liberate Tate posited that, considering 8,000 Tate members and visitors have signed a petition against BP’s sponsorship, Tate “can no longer respond by simply stating that BP is an important sponsor of the arts. Tate’s visiting public and its own members are saying in large numbers that maintaining a relationship with an oil company like BP is harming both the reputation of Tate and the experience of enjoying great art in a public gallery.”
Yet why should this relatively tiny group of people be allowed to dictate the terms of art funding and the cultural experiences of millions of Brits and visitors to Britain? After all, the four Tate galleries alone attract millions of visitors. In London, Tate Britain and Tate Modern receive over 1million and some five million visitors per year, respectively. In 2008, its twentieth-anniversary year, a record 1million people visited Tate Liverpool, and at Tate St Ives an average of 240,000 people walk through the doors every year.
Mel Evans of Platform said that “Tate needs to find sponsors that are in keeping with its commitment to sustainability and the human rights agenda”. That statement makes it clear that the activists’ priority is not to ensure that Brits have access to a great cultural sphere. Their qualm is not that the art world, in accepting donations, risks being compromised by certain interests – in this case, those of Big Oil – but that it may be influenced by the wrong interests. Groups like Platform would presumably not have a problem with Amnesty International or Greenpeace sponsoring an exhibition at Tate Modern, because their philistine purpose is to shape Britain’s cultural life according to their specific political agenda.
No matter where you stand on BP’s corporate practices, let’s hope cultural institutions stand up to this loud minority and defend their commitment to allowing as many people as possible to experience excellent art.
Image: Demonstrators pour oil and feathers outside the entrance to the Tate Britain, in Pimlico, central London, which is hosting the Tate Britain summer party, as part of a protest against BP sponsorship of the arts (2010).