All that glisters is not gold

The World Shakespeare Festival should have been an unabashed celebration of Shakespeare’s continued relevance to our world. However, it was sullied by the fact that the festival – and the RSC’s What country friends is this? trilogy of plays – were prominently sponsored by BP. Meanwhile, the Tate, British Museum, Royal Opera House and National Portrait Gallery are in the midst of five-year sponsorship deals with BP.

Masking the business from the common eye

In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill and given BP’s decision to go into the highly-polluting tar sands business, we and many others feel that BP has no place in arts sponsorship. We are deeply concerned that our cultural institutions are allowing themselves to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities with a veneer of respectability.

BP admitted at a recent AGM that its sponsorship decisions went through “exactly the same processes as we would for any investment”. A member of the BP Board said that the aim of their sporting and cultural sponsorship this Olympic year was “brand projection and connection with customers and society”, and to “enhance their relationship with strategic commercial partners”. BP itself admits that this isn’t about supporting the arts, it’s about rebuilding the company’s shattered public reputation whilst continuing to engage in even more destructive activities around the world.

It’s already having an effect. According to market research, 38% of people who had been exposed to BP’s Olympic sponsorship now believe that BP is working towards a cleaner planet.

The money’s the thing

But don’t we need corporate sponsorship to keep the arts alive?

As part of the government’s austerity package, in 2011 the Arts Council suffered the worst cuts for thirty years.  As a result, the RSC lost 15% of their funding.  According to Philip Goff of Art Uncut: ‘Cuts to government funding of the arts makes our culture vulnerable to market forces, and we should be clamouring to get government support back’.  Recent governments have encouraged more corporate sponsorship of the arts in an attempt to fill the gap left by reductions in public funding, but this is a fickle source of money at best.  Business investment in the arts fell by 7% in 2010/11, reaching a lower level than in 2004/05. Corporations like BP and Shell are usually only interested in sponsoring established “prestige” institutions and events, as this gives them far more brand exposure than supporting small theatres or experimental art.

The current BP sponsorship deal provides less than 1% of the annual income of the British Museum, Tate, and Royal Opera House, and just 3% of the income of the National Portrait Gallery. BP needs these institutions far more than they need BP.

We need a more democratic and reliable funding model that stimulates free creative expression whilst at the same time ensuring that the arts are accessible to everyone, not just the well-off. Relying too heavily on corporations whose primary purpose is profit and whose only aim is to build their public image will leave the future of arts and culture insecure and vulnerable to the whims and wiles of big business.

Alternatives already exist. For example the PCS Union, who represent over 5,000 workers in UK museums and galleries, have laid out an alternative vision for culture, which lays out one way in which the arts could be funded without the need for corporate sponsorship.

Out, damned logo! Out, we say!

We dream of seeing an end to oil sponsorship of the arts, and are committed to finding more responsible ways to finance this country’s cultural life, for our own and future generations.