Volunteer quits Bergen International Festival over Statoil sponsorship

15 Mar 2013 admin

Statoil kontor og logoControversies around oil sponsorship of the arts aren’t confined to the UK. This is a translation of an article by Ragnhild Freng Dale printed in Bergens Tidende on March 1st, which you can find online here in its original Norwegian.

The Bergen International Festival, an annual festival of arts and contemporary music in Bergen, released their programme of events for May at the end of February. The festival does its utmost to bring contemporary arts to its audience and to the city of Bergen, and the programme is as always filled to the brim with the highest quality of artists from within and beyond Norway. Theatre, arts, literature and music is lined up to explode in the city, and the people of Bergen always look forward to these two weeks in early summer, when the city is at its most beautiful. Open events and free concerts and debates are also a core part of the programme, which many people enjoy and learn from. Yet, as a theatre-person and a former volunteer with the festival, I have been growing increasingly uneasy with what the festival really stands for in society. It is a question of sponsorship and what values we take responsibility for.

Of course, arts sponsorship is widespread, and even in the richest country in the world, the world of arts would not go round without some help from these sponsors. Some sponsorship agreements are positive and helpful, but there is a big reservation to keep in mind: when accepting these deals, we should not forget that money always comes from somewhere – and that this brings with it an ethical responsibility. Artists have to take care to avoid becoming the social alibi of companies who sponsor them only to obtain a social licence to carry on as they please.

Statoil is one of the major partners of the Bergen International Festival, a relationship that helps the oil company to build a social licence to keep extracting oil and damage the world we depend upon and the lives we lead here. Through such partnerships, Statoil is able to build an image of a culture-loving and socially responsible company which can “give something worthwhile to society and convey our values through the global language of music.” (full quote here). It covers the origin of this profit in a rosy glow of corporate responsibility, hiding the fact that Statoil’s international operations in countries such as Canada and Angola incur deep wounds on landscape and human lives, poisons the ground water and according to some, breaches the human rights convention on a daily basis. Is this really what the Bergen International Festival wants to display and promote through its shows?

Of course, the relationship with Statoil is nothing new, and is further complicated by the fact that two thirds of Statoil is owned by the Norwegian government. This is, however, no excuse to avoid responsibility. In 2013, it is clearer than ever that we face a stark choice to work either for or against a future with a climate we can inhabit. There is no in between, and any partnership between arts festivals, individual artists, and environmentally destructive companies must bear this in mind. Statoil is not a “nice” or “generous” company. They make their money from extracting oil and gas, and sponsoring the arts is an explicit part of their marketing strategy to appear as a fluffy and likable company – complete with a flowery pink logo to be printed on programme flyers.

In terms of the festival in Bergen, only Maja Ratkje, who was invited as Festival Artist last year, has dared to speak out and make demands. She refused to have the company logo printed on her programmes and publicity, thereby setting an example of how we as artists and citizens have to stand for our convictions. In a similar vein, many young artists have refused the Statoil-stipend over the last few years. They show how it is possible to say no, and to maintain an ethical and moral consciousness of what signals they send out through their art. We have a choice, and therefore a responsibility.

My question to the Bergen International Arts Festival is as follows: why let first-rate arts be abused to give a good reputation to Statoil’s destructive practices? Is it not enough that arts and people fill the city with bubbling energy? Must we also add degrees to the climatic boiling point by taking part in these events? The festival is so big and respected that it could set an example against dirty money and easy greenwashing. Where is the integrity and courage to do so?

As much as it pains me to say this, I do not want to volunteer for the Bergen International Festival again. I cannot work for a festival, knowing that every smile I exchange with a member of the audience, and every programme I hand out, is glossing over Statoils destruction of the world. That is not a practice for which I want to be an ambassador. Until Statoil has divested in Canada’s tar sands, pulled out of Angola, and takes responsibility for its practices in the rest of the world, the Bergen International Festival should also take its ethical responsibility seriously and find its money from cleaner sources.

We all know arts need healthy and clean water to grow, and this does not mix with oil – no matter the colour of the company logo. It should be an easy choice.

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