This is about oil sponsorship, not corporate sponsorship, of the arts

9 Oct 2012 admin

At the end of September, the merry band of Bard-based interventionists, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company struck again in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Shortly before the BP-sponsored performance of Twelfth Night was due to begin, three actors took to the stage to perform a short piece addressing the issue of the controversial sponsorship relationship, including lines such as:

Alas, poor RSC, how hath BP baffled thee?… some are born green. Some achieve greenness, / And SOME purchase a semblance of greenness by sponsoring cultural events.

This, the seventh performance by the anti-BP ‘anarcho-thespians’ was the subject of an article in the Independent, and even an editorial that posed the question:

How wouldst the Bard have taken such irruption by the meaner sort? Perforce his wondrous plentiful natural references – 27 wildflowers and 55 wild birds, for them that counteth – can give the looked-for clue. And perchance, upon the Stratford antics, he might smile most heartily

The initial positive reaction from the Independent was followed up by a more critical comment piece by the arts editor David Lister, where he asked:

…why stop at BP? The banks haven’t been that ethical in recent times…. Whiter-than-white businesses are hard to find, but the arts can only survive with generous helpings of corporate cash. Force them to turn their backs on that, and watch ticket prices rise even higher and more arts companies go to the wall.

This is a re-phrasing of an argument that gets trotted out time and time again – an argument that doesn’t address the issue because it’s talking about corporate sponsorship as a whole rather than talking about the specifics of oil companies, the role they play in society in a time of climate crisis and their involvement in myriad environmental and human rights controversies around the world.

Just because there are very few ‘whiter-than-white’ businesses out there, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be talking about, and trying to exclude and marginalise those that are ‘blacker-than-black’ (to respond to the racially problematic phrasing). If you take a position that “everything is a bit morally ambiguous so you can’t make any judgements really,” you quickly collapse the possibility of any sort of debate about ethics.

It’s great if City of Birmingham Symphony orchestra and London’s Donmar Theatre want to have a chat internally about the fact that they are being sponsored by Barclays, what the implications are of that and whether or not that’s consistent with their values. We’ve created a study room guide for the Live Art Development Agency on the ethics of corporate sponsorship that might help them to have this discussion.

But this isn’t about banking. It’s about oil. We want to talk about oil sponsorship because indigenous communities in Canada are being threatened by BP’s expansion into tar sands, and because climate scientists are becomingly increasingly politicized in pointing out the role that fossil fuel companies are playing in preventing meaningful responses to the climate crisis. And we want to talk about it because we know that these sponsorship schemes are important to oil companies because it takes the heat off them and allows them to present them selves as good

However tough the economic climate, there are other corporate sponsors out there and we cannot let the dogma of There Is No Alternative prevent our arts institutions from adapting to changing circumstances in the world. I’m confident that various arts organisations could creatively adapt to the challenge of alternative funders – there are options. I’m much less confident that our climate can adapt to fossil fuel companies operating on a “business-as-usual” basis – that seems pretty irrevocable.

Danny, one of the ‘actor-vists’ from the Reclaim Shakespeare Company also had things to say in response, and scroll down below to see the video of their most recent intervention.

We are teetering on the brink of irreversible climate catastrophe. The only sliver of a chance we have left relies on a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, to an alternative energy system powered by renewables. Numerous studies have shown that this is both technically possible (so long as we are less wasteful and share energy more fairly), and generally supported by global public opinion.

The main barrier to this cleaner, safer, fairer future is the power of the fossil fuel giants, who are blocking climate-friendly legislation, aggressively pursuing new sources of oil, coal and gas, and promoting the deadly myth that we need fossil fuels to “keep the lights on”. They only get away with this stuff by presenting themselves as “friendly” companies who are in it for the public good. Their sponsorship of arts, sport and culture is a crucial front in this ongoing PR battle.

To break their power, we need them to be exposed as the human-rights-trampling, democracy-strangling monsters that they truly are. They are currently one of the greatest threats to our continuing survival on this planet, and they should be social pariahs, banned from our public spaces and political lobbies, with whom no artist, athlete or politician would be seen dead. Even if you believe that some corporate sponsorship of the arts is necessary or inevitable, then fossil fuel companies should be one of the first to be crossed off the list, in the same few pen-strokes as tobacco firms and arms dealers.

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