Oil money and theatre – questions from the Green Room

10 Jul 2014 admin
Caryl Churchill, Vicky Featherstone (Royal Court Theatre) and Mark Ravenhill
Caryl Churchill, Vicky Featherstone (Royal Court Theatre) and Mark Ravenhill

Last night saw a wide variety of folks from the world of theatre come together to discuss the growing controversy of oil sponsorship of the arts.

Many in theatre now recognise that climate change and environmental damage are pressing issues that need to be addressed, both in the very content of the work, and the daily life of the organisation. Arcola Theatre has led the way in embedding sustainability at the heart of its operations. Assisted by organisations like Julie’s Bicycle, many theatres and companies have developed sustainability policies, and now, National Portfolio Organisations of Arts Council England have to establish and monitor sustainability as part of the funding agreement.

But the question of ethical funding and its relevance to sustainability and climate change is often overlooked. If a theatre company accepts money from a private sector funder who invests in or directly profits from environmental pollution, the strength of their commitment to sustainability may be called into question. Theatres accepting money from such funders may also find it more difficult to present work that is critical of these industries. Several high-profile arts organisations are currently facing ongoing criticism for their sponsorship relationships with oil companies. Such controversies are only likely to increase as the threat of climate change becomes more urgent.

With the roll-out of ACE’s Catalyst philanthropy programme last year, and the global trend towards the free market and neo-liberal values, the pressure for arts organisations to enter into new funding relationships with private sector donors is likely to increase. Within this broader context, and in order to maintain meaningful commitments to sustainability in this changing landscape, it is becoming necessary for arts organisations to re-examine and clarify their thinking on ethical funding. Theatre plays a key role in this. As Bradon Smith puts it: “It is precisely the all-encompassing nature of the implications of climate and environmental change that makes it such a challenge politically, socially and culturally; but also why it is a compelling subject for drama. Because the question of climate change is really the question: “Given what we know, how do we want to live, now and in the future?”. Corporate sponsorship of the arts plays a key role.

Last night, alongside BP or not BP and playwrights Mark Ravenhill and Caryl Churchill, we co-hosted a discussion event on oil sponsorship and theatre at the Royal Court Theatre. Considering this was a tentative first attempt at bringing people together like this, we were overwhelmed by the response, with about 70 people from a wealth of different institutions coming together, and including playwrights, artistic directors, actors and people in Development, Marketing and Fundraising. Following a short presentation from BP or Not BP on what oil companies get from these sponsorship arrangements and why we should oppose them, Platform gave a short talk on the work we’ve been doing in helping other arts organisations develop ethical fundraising policies or guidelines. And then the event broke down into four groups to discuss different questions.

The event was run using the Chatham House Rule – that is, you can report on what was said, just not who said – so as to try and make it feel like a safe space for people to discuss the potentially sensitive issue more freely. Here are a few snippets of interesting points that got raised.

Reclaim Shakespeare Company intervening over BP's sponsorship deal with the RSC.
Reclaim Shakespeare Company intervening over BP’s sponsorship deal with the RSC.

Finally, some interesting suggestions that came out of the discussions for possible ways forward:

There’ll be follow up meetings to take some of these ideas forward, so do get in touch if you’re from the theatre world and are interested in taking part in these discussions.

An ENORMOUS thank you to the wonderfully supportive staff at Royal Court Theatre for being so generous with their time, and also big thank you to the folks from Art Not Oil who did such a fabulous facilitation job, and of course Mark Ravenhill and Caryl Churchill for helping pull it all together.

Finally, in case people are interested – here are some of the existing ethical fundraising policies that were referred to during the event. Platform‘s and the one from the Live Art Development Agency.

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