Ending oil industry sponsorship of the arts
Today, the Museums Association (MA) Ethics Committee published a response to Art Not Oil’s report, released last May, entitled ‘BP’s cultural sponsorship - a corrupting influence’. Our report posed a series of questions about the ethics of BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum, Science Museum, Tate and National Portrait Gallery, based on over 50 documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, drawn from hundreds more.
We are very grateful to the Ethics Committee for having considered our report. But we are disappointed that they have not taken a stronger line today. They start from the premise that their remit does not extend to commenting on BP’s business practices, and approach the report’s content disconnected from this essential context. They then describe much of the activity we uncovered as ‘standard practice’ for a relationship with a corporate sponsor. But BP is not just any sponsor - it is an extremely powerful international oil company with controversial operations, a multi-billion dollar turnover and a serious image problem. As a result, no interaction between BP and a cultural institution takes place in an ethical vacuum.
When it comes to fossil fuels, we urgently need to go beyond ‘standard practice’, both in our cultural institutions and in society. A museum or gallery that provides BP with influencing opportunities, curatorial input and access to security protocols is directly backing the business practices of a company that continues to extract ever more polluting and destructive fossil fuels in a time of accelerating climate crisis. It is endorsing a company that actively lobbies against effective climate action. It is giving legitimacy to a company that recently paid the largest criminal fine in US corporate history over its Gulf of Mexico spill, and faces widespread opposition from local communities where it operates in many parts of the world.
We know that many in the arts and culture sector share our concerns. Our intention was to provide the fullest picture possible of how a leading fossil fuel company is deeply embedded in our cultural institutions, and how it is using them as cheap advertising to improve its image and push its agenda. When the meetings and emails we highlighted are placed in that essential context, they become problematic – hence our decision to publish them. If a publicly-funded institution chooses to partner with a fossil fuel company, despite the evidence of its destructive practices, it should expect a high level of ethical scrutiny from the public; something that will only increase in coming years.
We would therefore question whether, in this case, ‘standard practice’ is best practice. We believe that the purpose of an ethical policy is to continually revise an organisation’s practices in relation to a shifting global context. And that context is shifting fast.
Since we published our report, BP’s Regional Group Vice President has conceded that ‘where there is an option, naturally we are going to try to match a particular exhibition with somewhere we have an interest.’ Our report argued that allowing BP any kind of curatorial sign-off on commissions for the British Museum’s ‘Indigenous Australia’ exhibition - when many of the Aboriginal communities whose objects were being displayed had no knowledge that BP would be the sponsor - was unethical. Today, members of Indigenous communities in Australia are actively opposing BP’s plans to drill four new ultra-deepwater wells in the Great Australian Bight, an internationally recognised marine reserve. The inconsistency between the museum’s relationship with BP and the Indigenous communities whose objects it displayed alone should have warranted greater concern.
Similarly, if the British Museum had exercised due diligence with regard to BP’s business practices, it would have known that allowing it to sponsor a Mexican “Days of the Dead” festival, and then use it as a backdrop to wine and dine high-level representatives of the Mexican government, would increase the likelihood of its sponsor extracting yet more unburnable fossil fuels from the Gulf of Mexico. In its sustainable development policy, the British Museum claims that it will ‘ensure that the risk of any potential harmful effects through any of its actions are minimised wherever practicable’. In putting on this BP-sponsored festival the museum explicitly disregarded its own policy and bent to the whim of its sponsor. This should not be standard practice.
The examples cited in our report were only ever the tip of the iceberg. Aside from the MA’s deliberations, the Information Commissioner's Office is currently investigating several complaints we have made regarding the inconsistent responses to Freedom of Information requests made by a number of BP-sponsored cultural institutions. We look forward to their findings and to gaining some explanation for the lack of clarity to date.
We are pleased to see the MA reiterate the important point that the museums should ‘carefully scrutinize all sponsorship deals in light of the recently revised Code of Ethics for Museums to ensure that the values of the museum and the sponsor are aligned and that public trust is maintained.’ Art Not Oil believes that, in signing a new 5-year sponsorship deal with BP, the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery have not scrutinised the activities and impacts of this sponsor adequately. The prospect of the BP logo still adorning exhibitions in the changed climate of 2022 suggests a lack of concern for what this will do to public trust, considering the growing international criticism of fossil fuel companies’ role in driving climate change.
Having said all this, we are keenly aware of the severity of the funding situation in the cultural sector, and are committed to doing what we can to keep arts and culture independent and thriving in this country. One of our member organisations is the PCS Union Culture Sector, whose ‘Show Culture Some Love’ campaign we have participated in and will continue to support. But we believe fossil fuel money is ultimately hurting, not helping, the museum sector and that values are not something to be compromised on. We believe that museums will gain more public support for their funding challenges if they end their ties with destructive industries, such as oil and arms.
Following the end of BP’s sponsorship of Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival, we are continuing to work towards a Fossil Free Culture, and hope that the remaining BP-sponsored institutions will ultimately decide to lead that cultural shift rather than trail behind.
We want to give the last word to Clara Paillard, President of the PCS Union Culture Sector:
'It's time our museums were free from oil companies, as they now are from the tobacco industry. This is not about 'standard practice'; climate change is happening right now. PCS members rejected oil and arms sponsorship at their conference in 2015. It's time the Museums Association did the same. Oil sponsorship and privatisation belong to the same neoliberal model of art and culture. We believe there are alternatives.'
We will be joining PCS on the anti-austerity march for libraries, museums and galleries on 5th November. Follow @5thNovDemo for details.
Photos, above: Children Against Global Warming perform in the British Museum, September 2015, photo by Natasha Quarmby; 215 artists, scientists, cultural professionals and frontline campaigners sign a letter to the Times condemning the new BP deals.