Do the arts need oil sponsorship?

On 28 July 2016 BP announced that it had signed a new 5-year sponsorship deal with four leading UK cultural institutions, which began in 2017. These sponsorships were originally due to expire in early 2022:

  • the British Museum (to continue sponsoring special exhibitions)
  • the National Portrait Gallery (to continue sponsoring the annual ‘BP Portrait Award’)
  • the Royal Opera House (to continue sponsoring the annual ‘BP Big Screens’)
  • the Royal Shakespeare Company (to sponsor the £5 ticket scheme for 16-25 year olds)

The deal was for £7.5 million in total, a reduction from the £10 million that BP spent on the last five-year deal. The new deal no longer included Tate, but included the RSC for the first time.

Then on 2nd October 2019, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced it was ending its sponsorship deal with BP two years early, in response to pressure from campaigners, theatre professionals and young people.

The impact of the COVID pandemic then disrupted the sponsorships at the other institutions. The Royal Opera House’s “BP Big Screens” did not take place in 2020 or 2021, and the status of the sponsorship there is now unclear. Various BP-sponsored exhibitions planned at the British Museum were delayed by the pandemic, leading the museum to extend its deal with BP until 2023.

The National Portrait Gallery, meanwhile, was closed for refurbishments in 2020/2021, and then in February 2022 announced that the BP sponsorship was coming to an end and would not be renewed, in another huge victory for campaigners.

However, the British Museum has been speaking to BP about a possible renewal of its sponsorship deal beyind 2023, and the Royal Opera House situation remains uncertain. In a separate arrangement, BP also sponsors the Science Museum (along with three other fossil fuel companies) and the Aberdeen Art Gallery.

We are deeply concerned that some of our cultural institutions are still allowing themselves to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities with a veneer of respectability.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s wrong with BP as a sponsor?

As the need for society to transition away from fossil fuels becomes ever more urgent, oil companies including BP are proving to be powerful stumbling blocks on the path to a zero carbon world:

  • BP has made the third biggest contribution to climate change of any company in history.
  • Its business plan involves continuing to explore for and extract new sources of fossil fuels, despite the fact that we need to leave 80% of known reserves in the ground and not explore for any more to have a chance of keeping global temperature rises under 2 degrees, let alone the safer 1.5 degree target agreed to at the Paris climate negotiations.
  • New areas of exploitation for BP include ultra-deep offshore drilling in vulnerable areas like the Gulf of Mexico; more highly-polluting tar sands extraction and fracking; drilling in the Russian and Canadian Arctic; and projects in areas of political instability and state oppression such as Mexico, Egypt and Azerbaijan.
  • The company is not a neutral provider of a product. It is a powerful lobbyist in favour of the continued use of fossil fuels, topping the list of firms obstructing climate action in Europe.
  • Specifically, it has successfully blocked laws to regulate tar sands, cut power plant pollution and accelerate the uptake of renewable energy.
  • The company famously received the biggest fine in corporate history for its ‘gross negligence’ in causing the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It has so far paid out a staggering $60 billion in fines, clean-up costs and damages, but the Gulf ecosystem and those who depend on it for their livelihoods are still suffering.
  • There is opposition to its operations from frontline communities around the world, including Indigenous communities in Argentina (opposing fracking in Patagonia), West Papua (opposing its support for the repressive Indonesian military), and Canada (opposing tar sands extraction). For short films of people from the frontlines of these and other struggles against BP around the world, see our disobedient exhibition, A History of BP in 10 Objects.
  • BP uses sponsorship of culture to maintain and enhance what is known as its ‘social license to operate’ in order to continue pursuing high-risk drilling projects and fuelling global climate change. This ‘social license’ comes from fostering the belief among key audiences, especially socio-political elites, that BP is a legitimate and socially responsible company. BP needs to appear as a good corporate citizen, doing its bit for the cultural life of the UK, in order to counteract the increasingly bad press its activities around the world are attracting – not least the ongoing pollution of the Gulf of Mexico. Arts sponsorship has proved to be a cheap and effective means of burnishing its image – just 2 hours of BP’s profits in 2016 would have covered its sponsorship of Tate. It also comes with the added benefit of accessing iconic British institutions for corporate events and political networking.
  • Read case studies about BP’s climate impacts and destructive activities around the world at

Don’t these organisations need the money?

BP’s payments represent around 1% of the annual income of these organisations – in some cases significantly less [1]. Cuts in arts funding, and the pro-corporate sponsorship policies of the Arts Council, are certainly putting pressure on cultural institutions to form alliances with corporations. However, the small group of organisations that BP chooses to fund tend to be those with the highest existing profile and fundraising ability. Oil companies only fund cultural institutions where they have a strategic interest – high-profile venues and events where they can gain maximum exposure and kudos, or arts in areas where they have a specific local or regional interest in keeping the public on their side. Oil money is not distributed based on where the arts are most in need, but on where the interests of the corporations can best be served.

Both Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival parted company with BP in 2016, and do not appear to be suffering financially as a result – indeed, both are expanding their programmes and have secured new sponsorship contracts. The Royal Shakespeare Company, National Portrait Gallery and many others have since followed suit.

We need a more democratic and reliable funding model for the arts 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.

[1] BP said it would pay £7.5 million over five years. The annual income of each institution in 2015 was: British Museum £119m, Royal Opera House £128m, National Portrait Gallery £29m, and Royal Shakespeare Company £64m. That’s a total of £1700m for all four institutions over five years, of which BP provides 0.4%. If the money was shared equally between them all, then each would get this  percentage of their annual income from BP: BM 0.3% , ROH 0.3%, NPG 1.3%, and RSC 0.6% (although in reality it’s probably not shared evenly).

Does sponsorship really benefit oil companies that much?

BP admitted at an 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 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 defending the company’s public reputation whilst continuing to engage in even more destructive activities around the world.

It’s already had an effect. According to market research, 38% of people who were exposed to BP’s Olympic sponsorship in 2012 then started believing that BP was working towards a cleaner planet.

Furthermore, these companies enjoy a measure of influence over the institutions they sponsor. For example, leading playwright Mark Ravenhill, who was recently writer-in-residence at the RSC, has described a “climate of fear” over BP sponsorship of the RSC. Freedom of Information research by Art Not Oil has revealed multiple examples of undue influence by BP and Shell on curatorial decisions and security policies, and the takeover of these overwhelmingly publicly-funded spaces as venues for corporate networking opportunities with elite decision-makers and representatives of repressive regimes.

Why are you picking on BP? Aren’t all oil companies just as bad?

We don’t just target BP! We’ve also performed in spaces sponsored by Shell, Statoil/Equinor, Total and Eni. The only reason a lot of our time is spent on BP is because it is the most prominent oil sponsor in the UK.

Isn’t corporate sponsorship just a fact of life these days? Surely it’s unrealistic to oppose it?

As arts organisations are increasingly turning to the private sector for some of their income, it’s crucial that ethical scrutiny is applied to these relationships and they act in accordance with their core purpose and are accountable to the communities they serve. Arts organisations should have a publicly-available ethical fundraising policy that reflects the organisation’s values and provides a basis for testing whether the values of any corporations it chooses to partner with are in alignment with its own. There should be a transparent, accountable process in place for making decisions about new sponsorship contracts that follows the principles set out by the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics. Several arts organisations already have very good ethical fundraising policies, such as the Live Art Development Agency and ArtsAdmin.

Hundreds of artists, performers and cultural organisations have signed up to the Oil Sponsorship Free commitment to never take money from an oil, gas or coal company. These include the Royal Court Theatre, the Arcola Theatre, and the playwright Caryl Churchill.

What do you want oil companies to do with their profits then? Surely it’s a good thing they are giving something back?

Quite apart from the environmental destruction and human rights abuses that go hand in hand with oil extraction, UK oil companies benefit from billions in tax breaks and subsidies, so in reality they are taking much more from the public purse than they are ‘giving back’ in sponsorship. BP also gets tax relief on its sponsorship donations. If oil companies were taxed properly it would pay not only for full public funding of the arts, but better public healthcare, education and welfare systems too. In the UK, tax rebates for BP and other oil and gas companies are so generous that over the next five years they government is likely to give them around £5bn more than it receives from them in tax revenues.

Meanwhile, arts sponsorship is no philanthropic act by oil companies. It is a carefully calculated and costed PR strategy that is paying major dividends in terms of brand boosting for the cost of a short billboard campaign or a 30-second advert during the X-Factor final.

Are oil companies any worse than banks, pharmaceutical companies and giant accountancy firms, which are also major arts sponsors?

It’s true that many companies can be criticised for aspects of their operations, but there are some sectors that are clearly already beyond the pale, morally, for the vast majority of arts organisations. These already include arms and tobacco. Companies like BP and Shell have direct and ongoing impacts on communities and ecosystems and don’t just fuel them from behind the scenes. Given the gravity of the climate crisis we are facing and the negative effect that oil companies are having on our ability to respond to it, companies like BP should be seen as beyond the pale. If we add to this the localised pollution that their operations and accidents cause and their active role in supporting oppressive regimes, it seems clear that we need to draw a red line when it comes to oil sponsorship.

Aren’t you all hypocrites – you use oil to get to your protests and in your smartphones, don’t you?

Yes, that’s the problem. While we as a group all do our best to minimise the amount we use in our lives (and our performances), we are stuck in a society run on fossil fuels. Why? Well, one big reason is the political power of fossil fuel companies like BP, lobbying to block clean energy alternatives and scupper climate laws. Which is why it’s so important to challenge the power of these companies through protests – it’s the only way we’ll get to the fossil-free society we urgently need to avoid runaway climate disaster. Unfortunately, in order to interact effectively with society in order to create that change, we have little choice but to use transport and equipment that use some fossil fuels.

There are already workable alternatives to fossil fuels, but we won’t get them at the scale we need while the likes of BP still have so much power, with the help of institutions like the British Museum and the RSC propping up their public image.

Some campaigners also point out that by the same logic, anyone who supports the continued extraction of fossil fuels shouldn’t be allowed to use anything that relies on a stable climate – so, you know, food, clean water, shorelines…