Biting the hand that funds: is the Tate losing out from its association with sponsors BP?

The Tate has vowed not to take money from the arms industry or tobacco firms - but the oil firm's support is just as contentious.

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Enter Tate Britain and you are met, at almost every turn, by two lower-case letters hovering above a green-and-yellow sun. It’s there at each stage of the “BP Walk Through British Art”, from Turner to Gormley; it’s there by Tracey Emin’s bed.

Over the past five years, the Tate family of galleries has been host to some less carefully curated artworks, thanks to its long association with BP. At Tate Britain’s 2010 summer party, which celebrated the partnership’s 20th anniversary, two women arrived in floral dresses. Once inside, they lifted their skirts and dumped concealed bags of dark molasses on the floor. Meanwhile, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig glugged millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“We were given quite a few tickets to the party,” Mel Evans, 31, one of the two uninvited guests, tells me over tea in the Tate Modern café. “There were a lot of people who received that invite, saw the BP logo on it and thought: ‘Let’s give this to someone who’s going to do something with it.’” Since then, protests at the “big four” cultural institutions funded by BP (Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery) have become a mainstay of the anti-oil sponsorship movement.

Evans has written a book, Artwash, charting the history of oil and the arts. Environmentally, the case is clear: BP is a supplier of fossil fuels and has been responsible for many spills. And there’s a precedent for brands ditching what was perceived to be toxic sponsorship – even at Tate. In 1986, the organisation stated that it would no longer take money from the arms or tobacco industries.

Today, however, in an age of austerity, it seems a little churlish to bite the hand that funds. As a former Arts Council chair put it to Evans: “Wherever the money comes from . . . if it goes to the arts it becomes good money.” Tate receives as much as £30m in annual government grants. In 2010-11 it raised over £50m from its shops, trusts and merchandise. In January the pressure group Platform learned that Tate had received, on average, £245,000 a year from BP since 1990 – a tiny fraction of its overall funding.

Yet BP sponsorship has been in place for over 25 years. John Browne, a former CEO of BP, is the chair of Tate trustees. Before a workshop at Tate, the artist John Jordan received an email warning against “any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors”. After the 2010 spill, Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, defended BP: “You don’t abandon your friends because they have what we consider to be a temporary difficulty.” But the difficulty was anything but temporary. In the years after the spill, a US judge ruled that BP’s “reckless” conduct had been largely responsible and the company pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

In 2016, the four institutions are due to renew their deals with BP. Evans’s book is named after the process by which a company’s image is improved by its association with the arts.

She tells me the effect runs both ways: “Whatever BP gains through its association with Tate, Tate loses.” The wider anti-oil movement will make this reputational damage worse. Last year, Desmond Tutu called for an “apartheid-style boycott” of fossil fuels. Even the recent Muppets movie cast an oil magnate as its villain.

The existing deals may continue after 2016 but Evans insists that eventually the war will be won. Artwash places the end of oil sponsorship within a much longer history of standing up to corporations and winning. “It’s about showing that this is how social change happens,” she says as we leave Tate Modern – which, after all, was once an oil-burning power station. “We’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again. It’s just a matter of when.” 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article appears in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special