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Days of the Dead
Photography Diana More

Is the oil industry killing British art institutions?

New evidence suggests BP has influenced exhibitions, events and security in the UK’s biggest galleries and museums, questioning the murky relationship between art and corporations

Art shows are notoriously difficult to fund: without money to invest in space, materials and getting the good word out, there’s no performance, installation or series. And so the struggle between free, creative expression and money begins. In a report made public by activists of Art Not Oil, information suggests BP, the oil giant, has had influence over curatorial decisions, events and security procedures with some of the UK’s biggest cultural institutions that it sponsors, including the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

The report has been built upon a series of Freedom of Information requests made to the galleries – inclusive of the Tate and Science Museum – in an attempt by the collective to pin down the alleged relationship between the oil company and the artistic establishments it funds. The revelations include alleged collusion with senior gallery staff over security procedures, influence over decision-making with curatorial content, and a “troubling” email from the British Museum asking that a VIP list that includes BP be deleted ‘as soon as it is no longer required’.

Art Not Oil had previously uncovered evidence that Shell had attempted to influence a climate exhibition at the Science Museum, which the group’s Dr Chris Garrard explains, “crosses a major ethical line in the cultural sector”. In this instance, the group began investigating the Tate. “The gallery was very resistant and this led to a drawn-out process of requests, redactions and even a legal tribunal led by one of our coalition members, Platform, before some of the past figures were eventually released,” says Garrard. “We're still chasing the more recent figures.”

The collective works towards ending oil sponsorship of the arts. They’re made up of several groups, including BP or not BP?, a theatrical protest group who campaigned successfully to end BP’s sponsorship of the Edinburgh International Festival; Liberate Tate, whose protest helped force Tate and BP to split; the PCS Union Culture Sector and others, as part of the international movement #FossilFreeCulture.

There have been countless protests and words of condemnation from art lovers criticising the Tate’s involvement with BP; in 2011, naked demonstrators lay covered in oil in the main hall, and in 2014 an impromptu performance saw a group writhe around underneath black cloth. These were in response to BP’s involvement in the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in 2010, a horrific oil spill off of the Gulf of Mexico. After serious campaigns and pressure from artists and protestors, the Tate decided to end its sponsorship deal as of 2017. Right now, the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery are reviewing their funded relationship with the energy company.

Art Not Oil continue to be weary of the relationship between the corporate and the cultural, as the report evidences a conflicting intersection. How they’ve dealt with sponsors, and the increasingly “inconsistent” and “unusual” demands from BP to further supposed political agenda are cause for serious worry within the group.

Nevertheless, the National Portrait Gallery has denied allegations that it has been placed under pressure or influenced by BP. In a statement, they said: “Relationships with all sponsors are not about being put ‘under pressure’, we have open discussions with our partners who not unreasonably like to see their support acknowledged. However, sponsors including BP are very understanding that while their requests are considered, some we are unable to accommodate such as the instance where the Gallery has guidelines governing logo placement and positioning of sponsor credits.”

In a statement from the British Museum, the organisation expressed its gratefulness for the “loyal and ongoing support” from BP, allowing them to “bring world cultures to a global audience” through their funding of exhibits. “We believe it is more important than ever to deepen people’s understanding of the world’s many and varied cultures… achieved through the temporary exhibition format. It is only possible to develop and host temporary exhibitions with this kind of external support. Discussions regarding the renewal of the partnership are continuing.”

The report also details BP’s involvement in coordinating the security responses to performance interventions and protests among the different cultural institutions, even initiating and hosting a counter-terrorism training session for the arts organisation staff. The National Portrait Gallery denied claims it was pressured into attending an anti-terrorism meeting. “On this occasion it was a Met Police (Project Argus) organised awareness day at BP. We feel it is essential and responsible to take advice on security issues from all relevant parties and often meet with partner organisations on the planning for the safety of our visitors and guests at events and when the Gallery is open to the public.”

“To renew their relationships for another five years could be extremely damaging to the institutions’ reputations, and public trust in them” – Dr Chris Garrard

Additionally, Art Not Oil were concerned about underhanded agendas BP harboured. “At the British Museum, BP often appeared to be sponsoring temporary exhibitions based around regions where it had strategic interests – China, Australia and Mexico – and so we wanted to examine whether there were ulterior motives,” says Garrard. “Often, documents come to us redacted and with exemptions, so in some cases, we have had to resort to internal reviews or multiple requests to uncover what is a rather murky picture. In reality, BP’s corrupting influence at these institutions could run even deeper than this report has been able to show.”

Garrard references a particularly staunch example of BP’s alleged influence in the report, where the company provided additionally money to the British Museum, outside of its sponsorship fund, to finance a ‘Day of the Dead’ festival with the Mexican Embassy. This came at the same time as BP’s bid for oil leases in Mexico, a lucrative venture. With the event came special access to government officials in the form of a VIP reception. The report asks: “Was it a coincidence that the museum decided to hold a Mexico-themed event at the very moment when it would be of maximum geopolitical benefit to BP?”

The findings by Art Not Oil have been submitted to the Museums Association Ethics Committee and will be reviewed in June, as Garrard states, “we believe we have uncovered some violations of its code of ethics”. The group also plans to follow up on appeals for their FOI requests, as they believe errors were made when requesting information from the NPG and Science Museum, which calls into question their compliance with the information act. As the arts organisations review their funding from BP, Art Not Oil hope to shed light on what they believe to be serious ethical infringements. “To renew their relationships for another five years could be extremely damaging to the institutions’ reputations, and public trust in them,” says Garrard.

Essentially, BP makes up around 0.8 per cent of the British Museum’s funding, calling into question the reason they seem to hold so much sway as their values no longer align with that of cultural mainstays. The Tate was previously forced to reveal that BP fees accounted for under 0.5 percent of its budget between 1990-2006, around £150,000-£330,000 annually. In its previous judgment, the Information Tribunal made clear that historic sponsorship figures should be made public. But now, the Tate is refusing to disclose the figures for 2007 to 2011, despite the fact that they are now also historic.

To the collective and other environmental campaigners: museums preserve, corporations obliterate and these sponsorship deals offer legitimacy for the actions of the oil industry. “The tide seems to be turning against oil sponsorship – as the letter to the new British Museum director in the Guardian last month signed by 100 influential figures, and BP’s recent splits from Tate and Edinburgh International Festival show,” observes Garrard. “As each month smashes records for being the hottest ever and the renewables sector booms, it’s looking more and more as if fossil fuels belong in the past. Museums must look to the future, where sponsorship by fossil fuel companies will have no place.”