Painting in oil

VISITORS TO THE opening last month of the British Museum’s exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia were greeted by representatives of the sponsors, BP, together with banners explaining why the company was supporting the museum: ‘As modern-day adventurers in the resource-rich landscape of Siberia, we feel a deep affinity with the Scythians. They knew what they wanted, and they went out and got it.’ Anyone who paused to read on was in for a surprise: ‘We’re proud that the warming temperatures resulting from the fossil fuels we extract are helping to unearth these archaeological treasures from the melting permafrost: a welcome upside to the changing climate’.

This was in fact a spoof organised by the lobbying group bp-or-not-bp, which campaigns against BP’s sponsorship of the arts. The full story, as recounted on the group’s website, is a welcome revelation that environmentalists, so often associated with stern self-righteousness, have a sense of humour. A more po-faced note had been struck the previous week, when the Guardian newspaper revealed that Henry Christian-Slane, winner of the National Portrait Gallery’s annual BP Portrait Award, announced that he was giving £1,000 of his £7,000 prize to Greenpeace. ‘I hope this action will help keep the issue of BP’s role in climate change from being overshadowed by their contribution to the arts’, he is reported as saying, ‘I was very uncomfortable with the idea that the portrait award was being used to improve BP’s image’. In which case, why enter it, one might ask?

These are just the latest salvos in the long-running arguments between environmentalists and museums and galleries that have accepted sponsorship from BP. In June 2015, for example, campaigners spent an (unauthorised) night in Tate Modern scribbling slogans about global warming on the floor of the Turbine Hall. Campaigners’ ire had been directed with particular venom at Tate, which since 1990 had received £3.8 million from BP. They were, therefore, delighted when in 2016 BP announced that it was withdrawing from sponsorship of Tate, citing as its reason not the campaign but an ‘extremely challenging business environment’. This apparent victory for the lobbyists was followed by a setback, when in July last year the British Museum, together with the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House and Royal Shakespeare Company, accepted a five-year renewal of sponsorship from BP worth £7.5 million in total. This prompted an open letter to the Times from Mark Rylance, Naomi Klein, Conrad Atkinson and 214 other artists, actors, authors and scientists, protesting that ‘We cannot afford another five years of BP-branded culture’.

Most people would accept that the use of fossil fuels, from which BP derives its profits, is implicated in global warming, yet it is also the case that if the use of such fuels is to decline, consumption not production is the real issue. This is a debate that will take decades to resolve, but the campaign to end BP’s sponsorship of the arts is another matter. The museums involved deserve praise for taking such a firm line in arguing their case with their critics. As the former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, asked the protest groups, ‘What would you want companies to do with their profits? Do you want them to spend them in a way that benefits the public or not?’ The answer is that environmentalists want BP to cease operations altogether, and the campaign against museums accepting its money is simply a tactic in this long-term struggle.

Museums have to take into account ethical considerations before accepting sponsorship, but there is as yet no public consensus about the ethics of BP’s activities. That attitude may change, as it did with sponsorship by tobacco companies. Until 1989 the Portrait Award was sponsored by John Player & Sons, something that would now not be possible since the UK Government has banned tobacco firms from engaging in sponsorship (in the Tobacco and Advertising and Promotion Act, 2002). One day there may be similar legislation about oil companies, but until then museums and galleries should be free to accept donations from companies operating legally. Environmentalists pin their hopes instead on identifying oil companies with such activities as the manufacture of armaments, also a legal activity but not one that any museum or gallery would want to be associated with. That tipping point may not be far off, and would probably be preceded by BP withdrawing from arts sponsorship on the grounds that it was not worth the bad press.

Activists have chosen the arts as a focus for their campaigns because this is a way to win headlines. That only works, however, in countries such as the UK where many arts bodies are funded by the taxpayer, allowing environmentalists to depict commercial sponsorship as relatively insignificant in financial terms. By contrast, sponsorship is fundamental to the way the arts are funded in the USA, which helps to explain why this sort of lobbying has had little traction there. If the J. Paul Getty Museum was based in the UK would there be a campaign by bp-or-not-bp to get it to change its name or even close down altogether?

Last year, Anna Galkina, a member of the campaign group Platform London, responded to the renewal of BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum by claiming that ‘BP is ripping off our cultural institutions – their sponsorship provides less than 0.5% of the British Museum’s budget. With this pocket change, BP buys legitimacy, access to invaluable advertising space, and masks its role in destroying indigenous lands, arming dictatorships and wrecking our climate’. This exaggerated claim needs to be set against the fact that since 2008 the money spent by central Government on the arts has declined by thirty per cent. BP has been an exceptionally generous sponsor, and there is no evidence that other organisations would step in if it withdraws. Without sponsorship, museums and galleries in Britain would be forced dramatically to reduce the scale of their activities. Is that what bp-or-not-bp wants?