Kevin Smith of Platform on new developments in the campaign to end fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts. Cross posted from New Internationalist.
Tensions ran high at the Tate Modern on Friday 7 December. At the members’ AGM, the Tate Members Council and Director Nick Serota were met with yet another barrage of criticism over their longstanding sponsorship arrangement with controversial oil giant BP.
For some time campaigners have argued that BP sponsorship is not an act of art-loving philanthropy, but a shrewd business deal contributing significantly to BP’s construction of a ‘social licence to operate’.This helps them to evade public or political pressure even though its operations involve such terrible consequences to communities, ecosystems and the climate. In the last couple of years, this has driven art-activist collective Liberate Tate to use Tate gallery spaces to carry out a series of dramatic, unsolicited performance interventions that contextualize the reality of BP’s operations.
The Tate Members Council isn’t really a decision-making body, but it is there to represent the views of over 100,000 fee-paying members. It is the largest membership body of any cultural institution in Britain, generating more than £5 million ($8 million) annually. This year, some members sent a letter to the council laying out a number of concerns about the sponsorship relationship, and came along to the AGM to flag it up in person.
At the very start of the meeting, the council’s chair, Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow, acknowledged that space would be given to discuss the BP issue, but I don’t think he or Nick Serota or deputy head Alex Beard were expecting the tricky questions to come so thick and fast as they did, and not only from those representing the letter-writers.
Tate’s Ethics Policy states that Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when: ‘The donor has acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds, for example when funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct.’
Earlier this month, BP agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion settlement for criminal charges regarding the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, on top of a number of similar court cases in recent years. Serota defended the stance, saying that BP’s operations aren’t ‘fundamentally’ criminal – but it seems like an awful lot of criminality is stacking up as part of the whole picture.
The meeting’s discussion kept returning to the sum of money that Tate is getting from BP. Despite being a public body, and having been the subject of numerous Freedom of Information requests, Tate refuses to disclose the actual sum, saying that it would be ‘harmful to commercial interests’. It seems that this might be a convenient strategy to cover up how little the sum might actually be.
The dominant discourse that Tate likes to maintain is that ‘terrible things will happen if we don’t have the BP money’ – but not disclosing the amount of money prevents any real debate from taking place about what those ‘terrible things’ may be, and whether there might be any alternatives. Under information law, the ‘commercial interest’ defence can be outweighed by the ‘public interest’ argument – so what Tate is effectively doing is prioritizing BP’s commercial interests in the sponsorship arrangement over the public’s interest in discussing how Tate could find alternatives.
At the end of 2011, BP made a sponsorship deal worth £10 million ($16 million) over five years with four different cultural institutions, including Tate. If you divided it equally, and if this is the only money that Tate is getting from BP, you’re talking about just £500,000 a year. That’s a tenth of what Tate raises from its membership scheme, prompting one woman at the AGM to exclaim, ‘is that all?’ In the 2011/12 financial year, Tate’s incoming resources were £113 million ($182 million). So this possible contribution from BP represents less than half of one per cent of Tate’s total income. Could Tate really not accommodate a budget shortfall of less than half of one per cent?
Here are a couple of ideas for starters – how about holding a referendum among Tate members to see if people would be willing to increase their membership fee by a couple of pounds to accommodate the shortfall? Why not aggregate a bunch of smaller, but more ethical, companies to co-sponsor Tate in a co-operative fashion?
Tate seems to be making excuses for institutional inertia after having received BP money for more than 20 years. With an increasingly climate-conscious public, and the certainty of more disasters like Deepwater waiting to happen, it’s high time it took concrete steps to disentangle itself from Britain’s most controversial corporate sponsor.
Thespian activist collecitve Reclaim Shakespeare Company are claiming victory as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s short-lived association with BP comes to an end. In a statement issued to The Independent the RSC said: “We have no further sponsorship [with BP] confirmed ” The activists claim that the RSC’s programme for 2013 has been announced and that none of the productions appears to be sponsored by BP.
Yesterday four playlets were performed inside the Great Court of the British Museum in protest at BP’s sponsorship of the Shakespeare exhibition the space currently houses. Alongside the principal performers, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company estimate another 200 “actor-vists” participated in a chorus of:
Double double, oil is trouble
Tar sands burn while greenwash bubbles
Double double, oil is trouble
Let’s reduce BP to rubble.
On 15 November BP admitted it was guilty of 14 criminal charges in relation to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and accepted fines totaling $4.5 billion – the biggest combined fine in US history. The charges include lying to Congress. The increased police and security presence at yesterday’s event would appear to suggest that BP’s public relations largesse comes increasingly not just with a reputation and credibility cost to the recipient but with a financial one too.
Performer Richard Howlett said:
“As the reality of climate change becomes ever clearer, the case for ending oil sponsorship of the arts is gathering momentum. The RSC seem to have seen sense, and decided to no longer act as a figleaf to hide BP’s destructive activities. The British Museum, Tate, National Portrait Gallery and others must now do the right thing and follow suit.”
Climate action in London continues tomorrow as activists gather to shut down a conference hosted by the Canadian Embassy in partnership with Shell and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office aimed at increasing investment in the Canadian tar sands. Shell is the subject of a legal action brought by the Athatbascan Chipewyan First Nation over the threat posed by the company’s tar sands developments to their traditional ways of life. The UK and Canadian governments have been effectively colluding to delay European legislation which would effectively prohibit importation of tar sands oil into the EU due to it’s relatively high carbon footprint. Professor James Hansen has said that “exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”
Greenpeace undercover sting breaking today reveals plot within UK Conservative Party to undermine the Climate Change Act. Peter Lilley is caught on camera saying: “Basically I think [George] Osborne wanted to get people into key positions who could begin to get government off the hook of the commitments it made very foolishly. We could well see, certainly amendments to the Climate Change Act, cease to make it legally-binding, make it advisory.” Put together with the recent promotion of sceptics and anti-environment Tories into key positions and the capture of government by the gas mafia, this has all the makings of one big shit-storm. It also explains how the government intended to square the building of 20 new gas-fired power stations with its legally-binding commitments on the Climate Change Act. It didn’t…
Naomi Klein interviewed while spending time with Occupy Sandy, helping victims hit by the hurricane in New York and New Jersey, and explaining the rationale behind 350.org’s Do the Math tour – coming to a city in the US near you over the next few weeks (7 November-3 December).
We know how much carbon can be released into the atmosphere and still have a hope in hell of staying below 2 degrees – which by the way is too warm. What we’re experiencing here is less than 1 degrees warming. So imagine what two degrees warming would look like. But governments agree on how much carbon can be released into the atmosphere and have a chance – not a guarantee but a chance – of staying below two degrees. And what we know is that fossil fuel companies already have in reserve five times as much carbon. Meaning they’re planning their business models to destroy the planet . They’ve declared war on us. We need to fight back. Direct action is a part of that but we can’t fight this one pipeline at a time, we need to go after their business model.
Part of the campaign to end fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts, Tate à Tate is a series of three alternative audio tours commissioned from artists (including a collaboration between Climate Radio’s Phil England and radio artist Jim Welton) which explore this issue of BP’s controversial sponsorship of the Tate galleries. They are designed to be listened to in the galleries themselves, but if you are unable to visit in person, you can still listen to the works online.
Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when [...] The donor has acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds, for example when funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct.
Workshops around these alternative audio tours are available to groups of students, activists, artists or academics, and if you are moved to do more, here are some suggestions for other things you can do to help to make fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and culture socially unacceptable.