The Reclaim Shakespeare Company chant "Art Not Oil" outside the Tate AGM

The Reclaim Shakespeare Company chant “Art Not Oil” outside the Tate AGM

Sunniva Taylor and Louisa Wright report back from another fiesty session at the Tate Members AGM.

This year’s Tate Members AGM on Friday 6th December was once again dominated by controversy about BP sponsorship. Three members announced their resignation and difficult questions were asked about the morality and necessity of ongoing BP sponsorship. Outside the building members of the Reclaim Shakespeare Company – who perform theatrical interventions against BP sponsorship – chanted ‘Art not oil’. They could be heard by all inside the AGM, as well as those queuing for the Late at Tate Britain night.

Tate has faced criticism for taking money from a company now known as the third most responsible for climate change in the world, as well as causing much local environmental damage and human rights abuses. Campaigners assert that by taking money from BP the Tate is contributing significantly to the company’s ‘social licence to operate’. When Tate Director Nicolas Serota gave his annual report to the AGM he omitted ‘BP’ from his description of the ‘BP walk through Art’ and the ‘BP spotlight’ displays. Visitors to the new Tate Britain don’t have that luxury – the BP logo is everywhere, and the name prefaced to nearly all the new exhibition spaces.

As at previous AGMs, Members again asked how much BP contributes to the galleries, and Serota repeated his refrain that this is commercially sensitive information and therefore cannot be released. In response to a question from the floor Serota did suggest that we treat the suggested figure of £500,000/year sponsorship that is in the public domain as the one upon which to have the debate: a figure of less than a tenth of the membership revenue. Serota also revealed that the Tate has just found a new sponsor for the Turbine Hall to replace Unilever, raising questions over why a replacement for the unpopular BP sponsorship has not yet been sought.

The resignation announcements from Bridget McKenzie (ex-employee at the Tate), Jamie Kelsey-Fry, and Sunniva Taylor came towards the end of the AGM and were received well by most of the membership. None of those resigning had taken the decision lightly, but were disillusioned by failed previous attempts to engage with the Council on the issue. The statement by Jamie and Sunniva stated that they ‘cannot any longer justify being members of an organisation which is in bed with BP – a company whose very business model is reliant on destroying the climate, and thus life on earth as we know it.”

'"Keep Britain white" graffiti, Balham' by Neil Kenlock, 1972

‘”Keep Britain white” graffiti, Balham’ by Neil Kenlock, 1972

At the AGM Jamie pointed members towards a recently acquired photograph of 1960s Britain that had been presented to members. It showed the graffiti phrase ‘keep Britain white’ and suggested that one day receiving money from fossil fuel companies will be viewed with the same shock we now feel upon seeing this photo. During her resignation Bridget highlighted the impact of the biggest storm surge in 60 years hitting her home town of the east coast of England as an example of the kind of extreme weather event which will happen more frequently if we don’t take radical action to avoid the increasing catastrophic effects of climate change.

In her closing words, the Chair for the evening, Miranda Sawyer, journalist and member of the Council said the statements were ‘beautiful’, and personally thanked those resigning for what they said. There is a definite sense that opposition is growing: the fact that the majority of questions from the floor at the AGM concerned BP; the singing and chanting outside; and perhaps Serota’s failure to label the BP walk through British art correctly shows an increased discomfort about the sponsorship.

Serota asked the AGM for views about where the Tate should be going as it moves into the 21st century; a resounding reaction seems to be: without BP sponsorship.