Full interview from Spoonfed on oil and arts sponsorship

22 Aug 2011 admin

Last week Spoonfed covered the oil sponsorship of the arts debate – here is the interview Tom Jeffreys did with PLATFORM in full:

1. What impact does sponsorship by, say, BP have on your view of an arts instituion and the work it exhibits?

Tate is currently working hard to cut their carbon emissions and share information about how this might be done in the museum sector. They do brilliant education work and regularly exhibit artworks that celebrate human rights and creative freedom, but all that work is lost through Tate’s endorsement of BP’s activities. Tate should be taking the lead on making a strong cultural response to climate change, but at the moment any work they do is being tarnished by BP who’s chronic human rights and environmental record is impacting on Tate’s brand by association. No amount of work to cut carbon emissions in the museum sector can mitigate the effects and devastation that BP is having on both the environment and peoples lives right now. If Tate want the public to take their efforts to make cultural change around the issue of climate change seriously, they need to think ethically about where their money is coming from.

2. Should arts institutions bear in mind the ethics of potential corporate sponsors? And why? Why should the arts ‘industry’ be judged by higher moral standards than any other industry?

Unless we would feel comfortable having our art institutions sponsored by the arms industry or pornographers, there has to be some sort of consideration about the ethics of particular sponsors – and that discussion needs to keep happening according to the changing context of the world we live in. One of the biggest recent contextual changes we have experienced is our awareness of climate change being the greatest threat we face as a planet, and the role that oil companies play in peddling the product that is taking us all to the edge of disaster. In that context, we need to assess if its still as appropriate for BP to sponsor the Tate as when it started this relationship 20 years ago.

If the arts ‘industry’ considers itself to purely be an ‘industry’ that operates solely within the same structures of product supply and demand as an other business, then it shouldn’t be judged by higher moral standards than any other. But if we consider the arts as having some sort of societal relevance above and beyond buying and selling, then yes, that extra something, whatever it is, comes with an extra degree of moral accountability.

3. How real is the danger of censorship?

Recently there have been two incidents involving censorship at major cultural institutions. The first happened at Tate Modern when organisers and attendees at the art activist workshop ‘Disobedience Makes History’ were told not to make any interventions against BP, Tate’s sponsors. The workshop group decided to collectively disobey this missive and Liberate Tate was born. More recently the organisation I work for, Platform experienced another form of censorship when we were told not to display leaflets that were critical of Shell on a stall at an event we were speaking at at the Shell sponsored South Bank Centre. These are two concrete examples of censorship happening in our museums right now. In both cases it was not policy, but in both cases the culture of fear or marketisation took precedence over freedom of speech. In the light of current government cuts to arts funding, many museums and galleries will be turning to sponsors to plug gaps in their programming. If high-profile cultural institutions such as Tate and The South Bank Centre are jittery about offending sponsors, imagine what kind of censorship might lie ahead for others? This is not straightforward ideological censorship, but marketised censorship that ultimately maintains the link between sponsorship and advertising at the expense of freedom of speech. As such it might be seen to be more incidious than out and out ideological censorship.

4. Can it be argued that it doesn’t matter where the money comes from – it’s what you then do with it that counts? After all, most money, somewhere along the line, has probably been part of something unsavoury or exploitative.

People have argued that it’s better that BP spend money on Tate rather than spending it on drilling for more oil. But this is a complete misunderstanding on the reasons why BP want to give the money. They’re not doing it because they’re art lovers, they are doing it to buy themselves (very cheaply) a perception of social legitimacy by being associated with these institutions. The money that they spend on Tate and others is, in a very real sense, money that they are spending on drilling for more oil.

5. Why do you think BP and Vodafone are being given such a hard time and companies like Beck’s, Courvoisier etc are being overlooked? Are there comparisons to be made with the tobacco industry?

People aren’t picking on BP for the sake of it, they are calling to account an incredibly controversial company with an appalling environmental and human rights record and one of the biggest carbon emitters in the UK. I’m not so familiar with the corporate social responsibility record of other arts-sponsors like Becks, but I can tell you for certain that they’re not going to be anywhere near as odious a corporate entity as BP.

6. If major institutions were banned from receiving money from companies deemed unfit, what kind of future do you predict? How would they survive?

In the 80s and 90s, industry people argued that banning tobacco sponsorship from international sporting fixtures would have a detrimental impact on those events, but everyone seemed to adjust to the situation and new sponsors were found. There are numerous companies that would fall over themselves to be associated with a brand like Tate. It’s difficult to tell how much of a financial shortfall it would create for Tate because despite numerous Freedom of Information requests being made, Tate refuses to disclose the exact amount of money it receives from BP, which is a real hindrance to this important public debate from taking place.

7. What can the individual do?

If people feel strongly about this, then they should write to Nicholas Serota, the head of Tate to outline their concerns. Tate Members especially should exercise their membership to ask questions as to why this is being aloud to take place, and when the ‘tate a tate’ audio tour is up and running, people should encourage their friends and family to come along and experience it for themselves. And people in the art world should try and ensure that this debate is taking place rather than having it conveniently left off the agenda as both Tate and BP would have it.

8. A while back Trafigura was dumped as sponsor of an art prize – can you see something similar happening with Shell/BP/Vodafone?

Oil companies are a constant source of controversy and calamity. It’s not like the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe was a one off. Just this last week Shell has been in the papers for spills in the Niger Delta, and last month BP was responsible for another spill in Alaska. When you factor in an increasingly climate-conscious public, and mounting controversy of both companies’ operations in extracting tar sands in Canada, it’s clear that Tate can’t continue to maintain its image of being green and progressive while it is so compromised through association with BP. It’s a question of when rather than if, and we have a real responsibility to try and undermine the powerbase and social-legitimacy of those fossil fuel companies that are leading us to the bring of climate-disaster while there is still time.

facebook page, ‘end oil sponsorship of the arts


Focus Areas