It’s like family members bringing big news to the winter break dinner table and not knowing who’s in on the secret already. Yesterday morning BP announced it was ‘pledging’ (like a self-sacrificial marathon sponsor) £10m over five years to four of London’s biggest cultural institutions. Platform and Liberate Tate handed over 8000 signatures direct to Tate director Nicholas Serota at the Tate Members’ AGM just eleven days ago, at which point Serota said the decision was indeed “coming soon.” But to slip it under the radar during the Xmas lull after some serious concerns were raised about BP by an artist on the Tate Board shows a lack of integrity in considering the issue fully, and begs the question, who else at the table knows about this already, and what are the debates that have gone on behind closed doors?
Of some significance in this news is that it’s the first ever public reveal by either Tate or BP of how much the sponsorship deal is worth. There’s been public calls for disclosure from Platform, and numerous Freedom of Information Act requests to try to get hold of the magic number that would inform debate around what Tate gets from it’s relationship with BP. Although this figure is large enough to be completely outside of my immediate frame of reference or experience, I’d still say it’s surprisingly little considering the welly some commentators have put into arguments that Tate would flake without BP. £2m per year between four cultural giants is maybe £500-700K each depending on specific exhibitions. Last year Tate state funding was £60m, which shrinks BP’s token like the pea under the princess’ mattress – causing way more trouble than it is nutritionally worth.
Crucially however, this is really about Tate’s integrity, in relation to its own ethical guidelines, the foundation of its membership, the communities of artists it works with and seeks to draw in, and its wider public image. Tate projects its persona as culturally savvy and politically right on. To renew the BP sponsorship deal in the face of artist-led public pressure totally undermines that, and reveals Tate’s interior world as tightly tied to the British political elites that uphold BP. The cultural world’s seal of approval on a company that is wreaking havoc to lives and livelihoods across the globe is cheap at half the price for an international oil company whose profits are in the billions. BP gets what large PR firms call a ‘social licence to operate’ – the mastercard of oil expansion, giving the company a guise of social acceptability that washes over the damage essential to oil exploration, extraction and expansion.
Apparently at the press conference this morning Nicholas Serota said something along the lines of “BP only messed up once”, presumably referring to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That catastrophe isn’t neatly boxed off into history as this comment would suggest – to this day communities along the Gulf of Mexico coatline are suffering from the spill and the toxic ‘clean-up’ operation. Serota also casually ignores the Texas tragedy of 2005, the ongoing controversy around the failures and broken promises in the BP Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline project, and the current legal battles and protest struggles of indigenous community activists in Alberta, Canada who reject BP’s tar sands expansion plans. In the words of First Nation activist Melina Laboucan-Massimo: “Its about asking where is this money coming from and how is it affecting people in other places.”