Ethics, economics and the environment: the arts sector remains split on BP funding

Article: David Styles | Image: Extinction Rebellion has held several climate protests at Tate Modern © Snowflake Foxtrot/Extinction Rebellion

National Galleries of Scotland is the latest institution to call time on BP sponsorship, labelling association with the oil giant as being “at odds” with addressing the climate emergency.

Will any museums, galleries or individuals back the beleaguered company in spite of its increasingly toxic reputation with a generation of woke visitors? The short answer appears to be yes.

The last 12 months have seen many UK arts and cultural venues declare a climate emergency. Recognising the climate crisis is a big step for visitor attractions as it is understandably difficult to minimise waste and energy use when hundreds, thousands or millions of people are passing through their doors annually.

Huge strides have been made. Advisor discovered, for example, that the government’s environment department sent more waste to landfill last year than Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Gallery, V&A, British Museum and Imperial War Museum combined.

There is, however, an inconsistency in many institutions’ apparent commitment to a greener future, with a large percentage still accepting donations from companies contributing heavily to worldwide carbon emissions.

Going green?

In 2017, campaign group Liberate Tate claimed the end of a 26-year sponsorship partnership between Tate and BP as a huge victory. “About thirty years ago, the tide turned on tobacco sponsorship, and now the same thing is happening to the oil industry,” according to Yasmin De Silva, speaking on behalf of Liberate Tate.

BP, she continued, is a company with a business model that “depends on trashing the climate, and it shouldn’t receive credibility by being associated with our most-cherished cultural institutions.”

Liberate Tate's 'Time Piece' performance within the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall © Liberate Tate

As the partnership ceased she asserted that it was time for other institutions sponsored by oil companies “like National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House and British Museum to follow Tate’s lead and end their deals.”

Despite the talk of progress,  it was in fact BP that ended the partnership with Tate rather than the other way around. “BP decided it would not renew its sponsorship of Tate in 2017,” a spokesperson for the gallery group told us. Whether this means Tate was happy to continue this relationship is not known.

Having severed ties with its flagship oil company sponsorship, Tate retains sponsorship deals with automobile giants BMW and Hyundai Motor, along with airline Qantas – all of which contribute heavily to the world’s carbon emissions. It also perpetuates a deal with Japanese fashion firm UNIQLO to sponsor ‘Tate Lates’; this is in spite of frequent protests against the company’s record on workers’ rights.

Messages projected on the Tate Modern shortly before a UNIQLO Tate Late © Clean Clothes Campaign

Campaigning bodies War on Want, Labour Behind the Label and Clean Clothes Campaign last year projected messages onto the Tate Modern ahead of a UNIQLO Tate Late, calling on the retailer to “take responsibility for 2000 workers” who they claim are collectively owed $5.5 million in unpaid wages and severance payments. “UNIQLO wants to position itself as a world-leading brand – sponsoring the Tate is just one of the ways they are trying to do so,” Dominique Muller, policy director at Labour Behind the Label, noted.

Tate told Advisor all of its corporate partnerships are “reviewed on a case by case basis by an independent Ethics Committee in line with Tate’s Ethics and Donations policies.”

Protests against Tate's corporate sponsor have been held all over the world © Clean Clothes Campaign

While it wasn’t this ethical code that dictated the end of Tate and BP’s to sever ties, this decoupling was indicative of tough times ahead for the energy company. The latest arts organisation to shun the fossil fuel funding is National Galleries of Scotland.

“At the National Galleries of Scotland we recognise that we have a responsibility to do all we can to address the climate emergency. For many people, the association of this competition with BP is seen as being at odds with that aim,” a statement from the trustees read, confirming that this year’s Portrait Award will be the last sponsored by the oil giant.

National Galleries of Scotland also placed on record its gratitude to BP for having facilitated exhibitions which inspired young talent and promoted portrait artists globally.

Tides that bind

Arguments in favour of BP sponsorship are seldom made at present, but one arts institution is willing to go into bat for one of its largest, long-standing backers.

The energy firm is one of the most substantial supporters of the recently re-opened Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, with several new BP Galleries having been included in the site’s £34.6 million redevelopment.

While Christine Rew, manager of the institution, conceded that “in terms of the ethical issues, yes, we spent a long time considering it,” the moral quandary is very different for a city like Aberdeen. The economy and much of the infrastructure in the Scottish port has been built on oil – and BP is a huge part of that.

The renovated Aberdeen Art Gallery reopened - equipped with new BP Galleries - at the beginning of November © Hoskins Architects

“BP has had a longstanding partnership with us and many of our visitors will be BP employees; it’s one of the largest employers in the city,” Rew continued. “That’s an important consideration for us.” The firm also supports the annual degree show at the city’s Gray’s School of Art.

She knows there will “always be divided opinions about these things,” but also sees evidence of improvement, with Aberdeen as a city and energy companies like BP “looking beyond oil”.

The Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums perspective aligns perfectly with what BP told Advisor in relation to its work in the sector. “BP’s support for the arts in the UK has provided access to world-class events to millions of people for more than 50 years. This is part of our commitment to giving back to communities where we live and work,” a spokesperson explained.

“The increasing polarisation of debate, and attempts to exclude companies committed to making real progress, is exactly what is not needed. This global challenge will need everyone – companies, governments and individuals – to work together to achieve a low carbon future,” the statement continued.

Another figure to have effectively given her backing to BP’s arts funding is portrait artist Daphne Todd. Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight, she said, “there’s a whole hinterland of good that comes from this sponsorship” and said artists who penned and signed a letter calling on the gallery to end the arrangement were “misguided” as it would deprive many artists a “wonderful opportunity” to be exhibited in London over the summer.

Todd, who won the BP Portrait Award in 2010, was on the programme discussing a letter sent to the National Portrait Gallery which has been signed by artists including Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Sarah Lucas.

Excerpt from artists’ letter to Nicholas Cullinan, director, National Portrait Gallery:

BP is one of the world’s biggest producers of oil and gas. Despite its acknowledgement that climate change is a problem, and the prominence of BP’s green credentials in its advertising, the company is choosing to invest 97% of its available capital in fossil fuel exploitation and a mere 3% in renewables. We recognise that a 3% effort towards any goal will achieve next to nothing, and this kind of glaring contradiction between words and actions can only remain in place if people don’t challenge it.

Unfortunately, BP’s continued sponsorship of the Portrait Award is lending credence to the company’s misleading assurance that it’s doing all it can, and so we, as artists, feel we must speak up…We believe that, today, the loss of BP as a source of funding is a cost worth bearing, until the company changes course and enables future generations to make art in a world that resembles our own.

While the carbon footprint of BP’s fossil fuel related business interests are manifestly unpalatable to many arts audiences – especially younger demographics – it remains a sizeable elephant in the room that many more sponsor organisations also violate the morals of today’s woke culture.

The National Portrait Gallery decided to forgo a £1 million grant from The Sackler Trust earlier this year, with Dame Theresa Sackler subsequently confirming the Trust would “halt all new giving until we can be confident that it will not be a distraction for institutions that are applying for grants.” This all stemmed from allegations the Sackler family’s investments were linked to the opioid crisis currently engulfing the United States.

The battle lines are drawn.

The coming months will be crucial in determining whether morally motivated protests win the day. If they do, however, there will be a strong chance that reality will bite hard for many institutions when such funding heads to other industries.