BP Sponsorship Sparks Controversy
11 August 2016
Clamors of protest have arisen following BP Global’s announcement of an intent to contribute £7.5m to several of Britain’s most respected cultural institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the British Museum, over the course of the next five years. Although the oil company’s proposal is for continued, rather than new, sponsorship, controversy has been steadily increasing since 2011, when BP’s five-year, £10m funding deal with Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and the British Museum began.
The coalition Art Not Oil is responsible for the circulation of a letter of protest, which has garnered over two hundred signatures from various members of the art and science communities. Signatories include actors Ezra Miller and Mark Rylance, artist Conrad Atkinson, author Naomi Klein, composer Matthew Herbert, environmentalists Bill McKibben and Jonathon Porritt, independence leader Benny Wanda, poet Nnimmo Bassey, and scientist Naomi Oreskes. Published in The Times on August 1, 2016, the open letter accuses BP of misleading the public with its arts sponsorship in order to advance oil extraction.
Complaints from various activist groups earlier this year ended twenty-six years of BP support for Tate Britain and thirty-four years of BP support for the Edinburgh International Festival. Vocal dissidents have included environmental organization Greenpeace and art collective Liberate Tate, among others. Rather than addressing its antagonists directly, BP cited difficult business environments and the passage of time as reasons for ending both sponsorships.
According to Peter Maher, head of BP in Europe, “[BP’s] industry is going through a period of rebalancing, but our commitment to the UK and to our partners is for the long term. Our continued support will enable these institutions to forward-plan engaging, educational and powerful exhibitions and performances that will be enjoyed by millions here in the UK and beyond.” Nevertheless, members of the art and science communities are labeling the renewed business relationships between BP and Britain’s cultural institutions “shortsighted,” “outdated,” and “unacceptable,” demonstrating their disapproval with a series of peaceful protests—and the promise to escalate their efforts if necessary.
Members of the campaign group BP Or Not BP have been expressing their displeasure with the corporation’s funding practices through performance protests at cultural events since 2012. Spokesperson Chris Gerrard decried BP’s continued involvement in British institutions, calling it “irresponsible,” “a hugely unpopular move,” and “wildly out of touch with the mood across the cultural sector.” Anna Galkina, a member of campaign group Platform London, echoed similar views, citing BP’s long-term funding plan as a strategic political move to “buy legitimacy” in the public eye, while pursuing its own environmentally and culturally harmful agenda.
In addition to arguing the harmfulness of British art and science initiatives being tied to the BP brand, dissidents have utilized the Freedom of Information Act to inquire into BP’s financial activity. Upon obtaining the release of various internal documents, protestors claim to possess evidence of British institutions making special accommodations for BP in return for monetary backing. This counters BP’s claims of a “no strings attached” relationship of mutual benefit between all parties involved.
Although the renewal announcement prompted significant backlash from members of the public, spokespeople from the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the British Museum have all released statements of gratitude, welcoming BP’s continued support. Royal Shakespeare Company Executive Director Catherine Mallyon commented on BP’s role in ticket sales, especially with regard to a pricing plan that allows expanded access for youths. British Museum director Hartwig Fischer spoke of the “magnificent exhibitions and events” enabled by twenty years of BP support, and chief Royal Opera House executive Alex Beard commented on BP’s position “at the forefront of corporate investment in [UK] arts and culture.” NPG director Nicholas Cullinan called the BP arts support “vital.”
The Museums Association declared through a spokesperson that its Ethics Committee will be pursuing the matter, in order to provide optimal guidance and advice to the institutions in question, but not launching any kind of legal investigation. Despite BP’s refusal to comment directly on the letter of protest, representatives have released several statements on the subject of financial support, reissuing BP’s intentions of cultural support and good will.
— Angela Freeman is New York-based writer, designer, and enthusiast of creative expression.