Artists speak out against Tate taking Big Oil money

24 Jun 2010 admin

Photo: Robin Bell
Dr Wallace Heim – writes on and researches art and ecology, social practice art

Sponsorship is a catalysing word. It allows profit to change from the excess of money garnered from one activity into the buoyant support of another. Like bequest, inheritance, grant, it implies benevolence. It is also a cleansing word, allowing the spills, slops, residues of the excesses of one activity to become the naturalised, smooth bankrolling of another, maybe less incontinent, activity.

This accountancy of purification has a classical necessity about it. It was necessary for ancient Greeks to render slavery invisible to maintain their way of life. It could not be admitted, that is, until it had to be, when that way of life had to change in order for life to continue. In the transfer of profits from oil companies to the incomes of cultural institutions, many layers of necessity have been operating. To receive the benefit of those profits requires not admitting that these excesses were made through the externalisation of the full costs of oil exploration, mining and refining, in the language of economics. And, they were made through the intended negligence of the harm done to people, cultures, environments which, at a distance, are less visible, and for whom there has been no recompense, in the language of ethics. From both the externalisation and the negligence there are legacies, not such a benevolent word, against which there has not been sufficient provision, as profit has moved to softer places.

Like to sponsorships, which are necessary for cultural institutions. But to perpetuate the valorisation of oil profiteering is to not admit the scale of the imperative to move to other forms of energy production. Any view that cultural activity absolves institutions from this imperative is a phoney justification for inertia. The changes needed will have to be more than those done by proxy, by emblematic display, by trading. The citizens and artists provoking the Tate and others over their sponsorship by BP and Shell are asking those institutions to do more than change their portfolios. They are asking them, I think, to act as cultural and political entities capable of responding to that imperative materially, imaginatively, financially.

Salette Gressett, ACE

Despite the enviable public support for the arts of our European counterparts, we are in a much better position than the United States. What is worrying about the possible future here is it could be what the States have gone through over the last 20 or so years. In the early 1990’s in the States, there were huge agonising debates when arts organisations were offered generous support from Philip Morris during a time when the National Endowment for the Arts (the equivalent of ACE) was under attack.

Why is private finance of the arts a disaster in the States? Aside from the major ethical implications, the financial crisis has blown big holes in the majority of the corporate, private and individual giving sources which has significantly impacted and even closed down arts organisations. Seriously, if you ask any arts professional in the States,they will think we are crazy to adopt their philanthropic models.

Ackroyd & Harvey

The slick tide of oil washing up on Louisiana’s beaches is a symptom of a systemic addiction to oil that we’re all party to. And Tate Britain will celebrate their Summer Party this month and 20 years of BP’s support. We’re just not sure we can raise a toast. We stand watchful of whether BP will commit to investing in the Canadian Tar Sands or not. Acknowledged to be the dirtiest, most polluting and energy-intensive extraction method of oil, vast swathes of boreal forest are cut down, toxins released into rivers and lakes, local people struggle with disease and destruction of their habitat.

Does this really affect our love of art and partying? Yes. It makes us deeply question how cultural institutions have become so dependent on oil money and what it takes to shift away from what increasingly appears to be a fatal and flawed attraction.”

Ackroyd & Harvey

John Hartley

*What influence might funders have on ethical philanthropy?*

While ethics are lived by individuals, they are also encouraged or challenged by collective positions such as those of organisations, funders and governments. It is often said that Arts Council England (ACE) exists at arms length from government, a figurative description that surely positions arts practice at the other end of the ‘arm’. But who is being held at arms length and who is doing the holding? (Do the arts feel themselves to be at the more muscular end of the arm?). However recognisable this metaphor is in practice, it is nonetheless true that the Arts Council has interdependencies with a range of publics resulting in what Buckminster Fuller would recognise as ‘tensegrity’. Dave Beech once categorised the organisation as, at best, bridging government and insurrection.

Given these rich constituencies served by an organisation like ACE, with what authority and to what end might it influence oil sponsorship? ACE has not stated policy with regard to other ethical funding issues. For instance (unlike the Wellcome Trust) it does not proscribe mixed project funding from tobacco companies. Rather, this behaviour is led by practitioners and audiences. If a national funder were to specify particular types of business relationship (even if, by law it could), which end of the arm would influence the outcome more strongly? When both the arts and government feel the same way about desired change we call that ‘best practice’, something funders are in a good place to develop and spread as with ACE’s support for the reduction of carbon emissions within arts practice. But, it is not clear that comparable concord could be found regarding the economic interests of extraction industries. Using public funding of the arts as the tool for change would locate the battleground of opinions within state-funded ‘bureaucracy’ (a word built from the French for desk and Greek for power). The desk does have power in many ways (both good and bad), but it is not as radical a power for change as the idea. Arts Councils do not produce ideas. They help others have and share them.

And yet, artists and arts organisations need to consider their own resilience. Resilience is the capacity to resist shock, for instance to revenue, building fabric, staff and audience perception. In light of which, weighing the benefits of associating an arts organisation with industries implicated in social destabilisation, militarisation and pollution on a vast scale becomes a practical responsibility. Accepting sponsorship funding from oil companies will enable projects, but it will also shift an organisation’s relationship with artists, audiences and other collaborators. This is an equation that every arts organisation must understand for itself. The finance upon which a project is built exerts a gravitational pull and can influence what does or doesn’t get said, who does or doesn’t come and ultimately the location the project occupies in the arts ecology. As the public purse tightens, ethical choices could have sharper short term costs.
But art without conscience risk hollowness. Ultimately each organisation must make its own decisions and ask itself whether its ethical behaviour nourishes its core mission or adds to its vulnerability.

John Hartley is an artist and was Ecology Strategy Officer at Arts Council
England between 2007-2010

Simon Murray

There is a pleasing aspect to this latest oil spill: it affects rich people. As such it is big news and action is being taken to mitigate its effects. What is not big news of course is the massive everyday destruction of wildlife, people’s and habitats by corporations such as Shell and BP in poorer locations around the world (Alberta in Canada, the Niger Delta, Congo, Ecuador, and on…).

Another recent release – potent and damaging to elites in an entirely different way – is the documentary: An American: The Bill Hicks Story. Bill reminds us: “You do a commercial – you’re off the artistic roll call, forever… Everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.”

With this latest disaster, “artists” willing to take money from such destructive corporations may now pause to consider the stench it will leave on their breath. BP-funded institutions such as the Tate may also be more likely to consider the Diplodocus-size dumps that accompany any hypocritical piecemeal pretentions to addressing the climate crisis. Just as it became culturally unacceptable for the Trans-Atlantic traffic of enslaved Afrikans, for women not to have the vote and for nicotine advertising, so should the stink of oil become clearer – people are waking up and smelling the shit.

SaiMuRai (Simon Murray)

Matthew Herbert

Of all the areas of human endeavour, art should be the first place we turn for self-reflection. It is even more absurd therefore that the Tate should be sponsored by a company that is as irresponsible and polluting as BP. Day one of any critical art theory course would dissect the logo of BP and show it to be the most cynical and barefaced piece of modern visual corporate propaganda. Why is the Tate therefore so keen to have it attached to its proud collection of modern art? Work, in part, based on the assumption that art should challenge complacency, disguise, orthodoxy and authority.

It is not just one company or one institution though, the oily tentacles of both BP and Shell have wrapped themselves around our most prestigious cultural institutions and at a time when urgent action is required to slow consumption of fossil fuels. Oil companies should not be allowed to advertise or sponsor anything in the first place. After all, it’s not like our society needs any extra encouragement to consume more oil.

Meanwhile, we must insist that these institutions, so comfortable in political harmony with today’s polluters, answer us: what is their official position on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Or of problems in the Niger Delta? Or of BP’s safety record? Or of tar sands extraction in Canada? Or the Iraq war for that matter? In trading our cultural legacies so nakedly for such tainted cash, some of Britain’s most powerful stages for creative expression have knowingly undermined the very integrity of that expression.

Mark Vallen

[ Mark Vallen is a Los Angeles based social realist painter and printmaker. He also publishes the “Art For A Change” web log (, where he has examined the intersection between art and politics since November 2004. ]

I have been writing about BP’s sponsorship of the arts since March 2007. That is when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) announced it had received $25 million from the oil company, and that it would use those monies for the expansion and renovation of the museum. In LACMA’s official 2007 press release heralding its relationship with BP, LACMA’s Director, Michael Govan said the following: “This gift from BP sets a new standard for corporate leadership in major public art museums. LACMA’s partnership with BP strengthens both the museum’s financial and physical structures. We are enormously gratified by BP’s support of LACMA’s transformation.”

Even a superficial bit of research at the time would have revealed BP’s abysmal record concerning environmental destruction, so it is impossible to accept that Mr. Govan and the LACMA Board of Directors were unaware of the oil leviathan’s unacceptably dirty history. Govan’s was a conscious and deliberately political choice, to transform one of the world’s great art collections into a marketing arm for one of the world’s biggest polluters. The apocalyptic event now taking place in the Gulf of Mexico, an ecocide for which BP is directly responsible, is proof enough of the inherent folly of oil money subsidizing art and culture.

In return for BP’s “donation” of $25 million to LACMA, Mr. Govan made all of the necessary arrangements to have the museum’s proposed new entry gate – then under construction – christened the “BP Grand Entrance.” In explaining his decision to accept the oil Goliath’s petrodollars, Govan told the Los Angeles Times in 2007; “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy (….) We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.” Since Govan made that utterly preposterous statement the so-called BP Grand Entrance has become a reality, and in order to enter LACMA today one must cross the threshold of that hideous edifice to big oil.

Now that BP has unleashed an environmental catastrophe that stands to be the worst such disaster in world history, it is time for the arts community to reject – not just money from BP – but patronage from the fossil fuel industry in general. To do any less is to be complicit in their crimes against nature.

I have always maintained that the arts are the last free terrain available to us, a landscape where humanity can explore the spiritual and the impossible; a realm where imagination reigns supreme, a sanctuary where the answers to our problems might be realized. But this sacred environ is now being poisoned as corporations begin to control and monopolize what used to be public institutions – i.e., museums and other cultural establishments. There is no clearer example of the increasing corporatization of the arts than the alliance between BP and LACMA. If we do not resist now, then we shall soon be as helpless as the brown pelicans that are drowning in BP’s ocean of crude.

Hayley Newman

Dear Nicolas Serota,

I am writing to urge Tate to drop BP sponsorship. Cultural institutions like Tate should aim to benefit the lives of all people, this position is compromised by the current BP sponsorship deal.

BP’s continued exploitation of oil and lack of investment in renewables (less than 0.2% of the companies total expenditure) puts profit over people and is so unethical that the green flower logo sitting beside Tate’s own can only be regarded with deep cynicism. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil leak is currently spewing 19,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. Once stopped, oil left in the gulf will continue to destroy wildlife, livelihoods and the environment, the long-term impact of which will remain unknown for sometime. And, while the UN estimates that 300,000 people a year are dying from the effects of climate change, BP continue to dig, drill, refine, and bottle and pump oil.

There is a creative groundswell of change happening, which I believe Tate could learn from and be inspired by. Artists are amongst a growing number of people working for social justice and trying to humanise change. Two years ago I stopped flying. I made this decision when I became aware of the extent of the suffering, poverty, hunger, loss of life and livelihood being experienced by people directly affected by global warming. Once made, my decision was incredibly liberating.

We all need to be responsible and take action in the light of climate change. Oily sponsorship is no longer an option, but creative solutions and ethical responses are…

Yours truly,

Hayley Newman

Shaun May

I eat oil.

This is not a metaphor, it’s not a phrase about to be subverted with a ‘cod-liver’ prefix, and unfortunately I won’t be any use in disposing of the crude oil spilling out onto the gulf of Mexico, but nonetheless I eat oil.

In 1974, the energy ratio (energy in / energy out) was 1:1. That is, for every calorie of energy a person ingested it cost one calorie to produce it. Now it is closer to 2000:1. Artificial fertilizers, refrigeration and cheap air-transit mean that for every single calorie I eat, the equivalent of one woman’s RDA is burnt on it’s way into my mouth.

Should Big Oil be sponsoring cultural institutions? The money they throw in the direction of the arts is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount they receive for being the lifeblood of Western civilization. And indeed, compared to the money they throw at politicians in exchange for favourable legislation. Until every cup of coffee in the café stops tasting of petroleum, there is no meaningful sense in which the Tate can stop sponsoring Big Oil.

Shaun is a performance artist based in London, for information about his work go to

Dr George Begos

Is it ethical for Art to accept oil sponsorship?
So far, Art is mapped in popular imagination within the confines of gallery spaces, the muted appearance of public art, or as a fatuous subject taught to disinfatuated adolescents as part of the national curriculum, around which an inward looking crowd of Art lovers, students, teachers, experts and artists revolve their lives whilst debating the potency of Art’s agency in the midst of the push and pull factors of globalization and climate change. Meanwhile, the Arts establishment, perpetually embroiled in a constant battle of budget cuts where more often than not aesthetics lose out, inevitably spreads its quest for funding. Naturally, ethical questions are raised, and yet because of the Arts’ position as non-quintessential for the functioning of society in public consciousness, it is difficult to resist suitors such as the likes of petroleum companies. One solution to Arts’ dilemma would be to enter the realm of public service in ways that would contribute to social transformation. Art’s potency lies with the qualities of its agency in that it sees and interprets the world in innovative ways, and thereby is capable of reaching people in places and spaces of discontent wherein its versatility and virility may soften through engagement with the edges of physical or psychological pain or the angst of life. This is the case in projects where private and public interest converge, such as at the CircleBath hospital, run by the health company Circle, or the Kentish Town Health Centre and Evelina Children’s Hospital at St Thomas’ that set a new standard for the NHS. Here, the concept of a hospital was turned on its head, transforming it from a silo for the sick into a patient-centric establishment that gives people good health rather than the experience of illness (Observer 21/03/10). Through projects like the aforementioned, where design integrates services as never before, and ideas of transparency, innovation and connectivity embraced by all involved complement one another to create environments that express a new, holistic approach to healthcare, Art’s fan base would be widened by captivating the imagination of people through its presence in the public domain by means of persistent intervention in the politics of the everyday. Only then would Art enter the public consciousness as a force to be reckoned with in public discourse, acquiring the legitimacy in the eyes of the public that is so long overdue. Only then could Art promote itself as a vital public service, not merely winning the contest when budgeting decisions are to be made between aesthetics and cost cutting policies, but also justifying any source of funding since the product is channelled towards social transformation. Furthermore, this trajectory of connecting Art with the mundane at the level of the tangible would trigger over time a transformation unlike any other. By engaging with the politics of the everyday, Art may submerge itself within the generic process of sedimentation through which cultural identities are formulated and subjectivities are shaped. This process would help manifest Art’s trace as the genre that underpins the making of a civil society, setting the standard for a brave new world.

David Hayley


As our ship pulls out
A tear and a hanky wave
Never to return

Cargo for market
Of cognitive dissonance
Cultured in guilt

The wrong direction
Hard-wired to development
Techno-fix problems

Sand in their faces
A day like any other
In blind extraction

From dirty money
Beyond plausibility
Carbon tyranny

Artful sweeteners
A bitter experience
Enterprise culture

Art becomes design
Culture becomes industry
Life becomes market

The expense of art
At the expense of others
Hypocrisy rules

Museum mindset
The gulf between art and life
As systems collapse

We shall watch and wait
Ecology of actions
When oil hits the fan

New coordinates
A fundamental culture
The art of economy

Beyond patronage
Cleansing the oil stains from art
Keeping our hands clean

David Haley, June 2010

Zion Lights

*Art Not Oil*

Crude oil, oil spill

Workers die, marine kill

Crude reaction

Lack of action

It’s on the flow

To Mexico

Who’s to blame? Nobody knows

Tony Hayward, BP CEO:

It’s “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big O”.

And the world is so small

In the mind of Hayward

His views are drastically, fantastically *wayward*;

Tony the phony

What an old crony

Can’t hear through the veil

Of his own baloney;

Reached a new low, he

Can’t hear

Can’t see;

Can’t smell through the stench of his own money.

1989, Exxon Valdez,

2005, 15 workers dead

Oil, crude oil

Still polluting Alaska

18 years after

11 worker’s deaths later..

Who’s to blame now?

Not Exxon, nohow;

*They’ve* supported the research of ‘facts’:

Funded 350 independent studies into ‘significant long-term impact’.

The problem of this pollution

Requires a creative solution

Of the spontaneous grassroots sort;

Not top-down marketing paid-for-and-bought.

The Tate is being scaled

The world of creation, failed

And every poet, writer, musician

And painter will be sailed

In a sea of thick darkness

Awash with deceit;

The world of oil giants

From which there is no retreat.

Close the Australian beach;

It’s an easier retreat

Than cleaning up the mess

Made by BP’s latest feat.

The oil giants are on the move;

Now they’re after our spirit

They want to own our expressions

And to influence every bit

Put a price on our imaginations

Stunt the realisations

Master our creations;

They’re after the sell

And their logo’s a shell

But we know that it’s covered in oil:

A *real* artist’s Hell.

And they’re well on their way

To creating a society

Of corporate creation

And the kind of insanity

Of the Niger Delta

Where people face calamity

Thanks to the spills:


And now they want to sponsor

Art of every kind,

My advice is this:

Let not the blind lead the blind

Your creative message will not spoil

If you paint your canvas with oil;

*Do* create for your kind,

But leave the crudeness behind;

For crude oil leaves a mark,

On the soul and the mind.

So Exxon, Shell, and dear old BP,

Leave our art alone.. We know what you’ve done to the sea.

*Zion Lights*

Alana Jelinek

Inspired in 2005 by a past campaign about inappropriate BP sponsorship (Art Not
Oil’s campaign about ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ hosted by the Natural
History Museum), I wrote to Michael Dixon, the museum’s Director. I was
subsequently invited to a meeting with the Director and the NHM Marketing
Manager. We discussed the mixed-messages being sent out by the Natural History
Museum, which is both a museum and a world-class research institution, actively
engaged in research about anthropogenic (man-made) climate change. What is NHM
saying when it is simultaneously researching and campaigning about climate
change and also taking sponsorship that aims at ‘green-washing’ an oil
company’s environmental track record? Coincidentally or otherwise, NHM
subsequently canceled the BP sponsorship deal.
I wonder whether there is any comparison today with the Tate Modern and BP? Tate
Modern has signed up to 10/10 and was in fact the very place where the
environmental campaign to reduce carbon emissions by 10% by 2010 was launched.
Is it something more than simple hypocrisy or the realpolitik of fund-raising
for Tate to make sponsorship deals with one of the world’s greatest polluters?
Does this type of a deal also damage the image of the institution and the
values it claims to stand for?

Alana Jelinek
AHRC Creative Fellow
Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
University of Cambridge

James Steventon

Aphorism #15

In the future, will the Arts Council subsidise carbon rationing for Artists and Arts organisations?

Martin Mantxo

Dear friends: allow me the following reflection
from the basque country (S’pain)

I have to say that as an artist and as a person because both things are the same one (i ended this nonsense of cataloguing people and myself long ago) i grew disapointed in general but mainly with the hipocresy of big corporations ruling every bit of our lives. Also with the concept of artis as acknowledged character, earning millions, caring about his/her name, in a world of his/her own, etc. It’s clear as this campaign points out that money comes from big fish who either own big factories, banks or from these big corporaations. At this time of crises and neoliberalism not even the public institutions have any power to propmte art. Here in my country corporations rule every bit. They use every single ground of popular culture to reach to people. So they take over the sports, culture and science. What can we say about infamous Shell and BP? Texaco and Chevron? perhaps less known our own versions of these monsters: Repsol YPF, BBVA, Iberdrola, Endesa, etc. Yes, the four of them are energy companies (first one is an oil company and the third and fourth one electricity generators), BBVA the bank which funds (together with others) many oil companies and projects (Repsol and Iberdrola before, Petrobras, the Camisea (Peru) and OCP (Ecuador) projects and pipes), power plants, dams, etc. And what is their strategy? no to invest in the ground while they spend lots in publicity o ensure the market: marathons (Repsol organised one two weeks ago through the Petronor refinery in Muskiz (Bilbo)), prices for those investigating climate change (BBVA), football league (BBVA) and selections (Iberdrola), Everest climbing (Endesa, Iberdrola, Gas natural), Basque hand ball (BBVA) and all their hipocresy of supporting renewable energy, being green, etc while they spill oil (Repsol, Shell, BP), support climate change or fill the Chilean and Argentinean Andes (Endesa, BBVA, BSCH), the Brazilian rainforest (Iberdrola, BSCH) with dams. What could i say: Repsol as well as Iberdrola, Gas natural and Endesa pump up oil and gas in Nigeria too, in the same way as BP and Shell do I am sure about it: I won’t be funded by them and refuse the culture they fund. there are many places . They are responsible for spills, flaring, for turning a whole region into hell and to do teh same with the world. I’ve got it quite clear: I won’t accept to be funded by their dirty money, for their dirty aims. To be an artist is to develop culture, to exchange it, to share it and that is not in their galleries and contests. Places like the wall Priest found, or in front of their refineries, in the paper used by Saro Wiwa, in the verses of Nekka or Femi, in the webpage of Art not Oil at their exhibition… thousands of places to develop our art – the Sky the Limit . Truely art is that one which expresses ideas, which articulates peoples’ and who doesn’t compromise to the BIG and powerful, which doesn’t compromise to their money. Our art is part of this anti-capitalist struggle. Our art is another tool more.

Martin Mantxo

Focus Areas