Corporate sponsorship is good for the arts


In February 2019, the American photographer Nan Goldin threatened to boycott the UK’s National Portrait Gallery if it accepted a £1million donation from the Sackler fund, which was deemed controversial given the Sackler family’s connection to the opioid epidemic in the US [Ref: The Guardian]. Following this, in March, the Tate stopped accepting Sackler funding [Ref: The Guardian]. In July, the Louvre in Paris removed all mention of the Sackler family name after protests [Ref: The Art Newspaper] and a trustee of the British Museum resigned in protest against the Museum’s relationship with oil giant BP [Ref: LRB blog]. In 2016, BP ended its 26-year sponsorship of Tate Galleries, as well as its 34-year sponsorship of the Edinburgh International Festival, with suggestions that the possibility of controversy influenced the move [Ref: Guardian]. Critics of corporate funding argue that it is immoral for theatres, art galleries and museums to accept funding from big companies with what they claim as morally dubious agendas. On the other hand, supporters of corporate sponsorship point out that without the help of corporate donors the arts would suffer hugely. These questions come at a time where art seems more politicised than ever before, with questions about the morality of appreciating the work of unsavoury or immoral artists [Ref: BBC News], what should be shown [Ref: Spiked] and cultural appropriation [Ref: How to talk about Art History]. So, should corporate sponsorship of the arts be celebrated as an important source of funding for important art? Or do cultural institutions compromise artistically and ethically when they seek corporate funding?


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The arts funding problem
With reductions in public funding, private investment ‘has become a significant source of income for arts and culture organisations’ (Ref: Arts Council UK). But sponsorship from large corporations is often only a small part of overall funding. BP’s sponsorship makes up less than one per cent of the annual income of the British Museum and the Royal Opera House, and just 2.9 per cent of the income of the National Portrait Gallery (Ref: BP or not BP). Nevertheless, supporters of corporate sponsorship ask who will make up the funding lost if we refuse corporate sponsorship. While 33 per cent of investment comes from public funding [Ref: Arts Council UK], with cuts to cultural programmes increasing [Ref: The Independent] this could be reduced in the future. Currently, 52 per cent of arts institutions funding is earned from tickets [Ref: Arts Council UK], so perhaps this could be increased. Yet the idea of charging more for tickets is also unpopular [Ref: The Guardian].

What counts as unethical funding?
Critics of corporate funding question whether corporate funding can be ethical. Some argue that by accepting funding from oil companies such as BP, arts institutions are endorsing their activities or providing a cultural alibi. A campaign group, BP or not BP?, says: ‘It is only by shunning and delegitimising BP … that we will ever reduce their influence… Until the British Museum accepts that, it will remain complicit in the unfolding climate disaster.’ (Ref: Art News) Some critics claim that sponsorship is nothing more than an attempt to gain positive publicity. Actor Mark Rylance, who recently left the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), claimed that the RSC was ‘allowing itself to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities’ (Ref: Guardian).

Moreover, many argue that cultural institutions already make these ethical distinctions about who they can receive funding from. A formal complaint in June 2019 called for the National Portrait Gallery to end its sponsorship deal with BP as it ‘breaches its own ethical standards’ [Ref: ArtNet News]. Mel Evans, author and environmental activist, notes that the arts have a history of distancing themselves from certain brands and industries. For example, the Tate has refused to accept money from arms or tobacco companies since 1986 [Ref: New Statesman], and the Museums Association’s code of ethics states that museums should ‘seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with those of the museum’. [Ref: Museums Association].

Who decides what is acceptable and what’s not?
Critics of an ethical approach to funding ask what these supposed ‘ethical criteria’ really are. Mark Lawson, a writer and broadcaster, questions the authority of those critiquing sponsorship, saying ‘the new puritans do not rely on financial audit or legal due diligence, but on a subjective sniff test’. Who, Lawson asks, would be deemed acceptable to sponsor the arts? [Ref: Spot Times] As Ruth Mackenzie states, there are ‘ethical issues about money pretty much wherever it comes from’ [Ref: The Guardian]. Indeed, some question whether there is anything inherently more virtuous about government funding. As one writer puts it, those ‘seeking state funding [must] meet a range of targets that have nothing to do with creating and presenting high-quality art and everything to do with fulfilling various political agendas’ [Ref: Huffington Post].

More pragmatically, some argue that it makes more sense to boycott BP products and services, for example, than to object to them sponsoring art and making it more accessible to the public: ‘Isn’t it better that it [corporate money] helps to subsidise theatre tickets and enable museum loans rather than disappearing into the pockets of shareholders?’ [Ref: The Guardian]

Many argue that the state should fund the arts as it is a good investment that creates jobs, learning opportunities and creates a cultural legacy [Ref: Cultural Policies]. But some see things differently, with one radical suggestion being that the state stops funding the arts altogether: ‘[I]f the funding tap was turned off tomorrow, we would not run short of artists … No artist or impresario was ever put off their vocation by the lack of a guaranteed wage.’ [Ref: Telegraph] At the very least, if corporate sponsorship were increased, this could free up state resources to be spent elsewhere.

What is the relationship between funding and art?
What does this all mean for individual artists? Some suggest that individual artists with no other source of income now risk being seen as ‘tainted’ by accepting corporate sponsorship [Ref: Arts Professional]. This has led some to suggest that it seems that often those artists who can afford to turn their noses up at corporate sponsorship are simply the ones who don’t need it. [Ref: Sky News]

Underlying some of this debate is the idea of artistic freedom and its relation to good art. Historically, such as during the Renaissance, artists were highly dependent on wealthy patrons such as the church, who demanded certain religious and political themes [Ref: Reference]. Despite this, artists produced artworks that are still admired today, and explored themes that resonate beyond the original religious intention [Ref: Columbia University]. Today, artists are freer, with a wider variety of sources of income. Yet, are they still dependent on conforming to their sponsor’s interests or the whims of artistic taste? Even if they are, some argue that the value of the work is independent of the sponsor, or even the artist’s, intentions [Ref: ABC News].

Does corporate sponsorship detract from the artwork?
There is also a question about whether the debates over sponsorship are getting in the way of enjoying the arts [Ref: Art Professional]. Should ethics have any role in art? JJ Charlesworth writes that outrage toward corporate companies shows the ‘growing hypersensitivity toward complicity-by-association that now attends every discussion of private patronage of the art’ [Ref: The Spectator], and ask that we refocus on the art itself. Even if corporates want to make themselves look better by sponsoring art, can’t viewers just see through this motivation and enjoy the work they sponsor? Is there a concern that, by making the focus of art criticism the question of who funds what, less attention gets paid to the art itself?

So, given these competing arguments, is corporate funding in the arts a good thing? Or are there too many ethical and artistic problems associated with such arrangements?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

BP boss says protests against its arts funding ‘just feel odd’
Jillian Ambrose, The Guardian, 11 July 2019

What museums sacrifice when they take corporate cash
Kate Collins, Wired, 1 June 2015


Can the arts afford to be too fussy about how sponsors make their money?,
Vanessa Thorpe, The Guardian, 3 February 2019

Navigating the murky waters of arts sponsorship ,
Wesley Enoch, ABC News, 17 March 2015

When it comes to the arts, BP’s ‘oil money’ is far less compromising than state funding,
Nathalie Rothschild, Huffington Post, 14 August 2011

All money is dirty,
Lionel Shriver, The Spectator, 3 August 2019


On Resigning from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees,
Ahdaf Soueif, LRB blog, 15 July 2019

BP’s oil money has no place in the culture of art,
Sadia Nowshin, The Boar, 17 June 2019

The Sackler family’s drug money disgraces museums around the world,
Allen Frances, The Guardian, 16 February 2018

Beware the corporate sponsors,
Yuliya Shymko, Thomas Roulet and Deborah Bull, Arts Professional, 14 March 2017


Sackler Sponsorship: should art be on the side of the angels?
Behind the scenes at the museum podcast 25 April 2019


Musée du Louvre removes all mention of Sackler name from its galleries following protests,
Margaret Carrigan, The Art Newspaper, 17 July 2019

How will British museums survive if they subject every donor to an ethical audit?, 
Mark Lawson, Spot Times, 23 March 2019

Sponsorship Spending On The Arts To Total $1.03 Billion In 2018,
IEG sponsorship report, 12 March 2018

Welcome To The Brave New World Of The Corporate-Sponsored Artist,
Elisabeth Segran, Fast Company, 10 March 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.

Corporate Sponsorship
The Arts
Financial audit
Ethical Audit
Board of Trustees


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

British Museum challenged over sponsorship deal with BP
James Pickford, Financial Times, 31 July 2019

British Museum staff support trustee who resigned over BP, Culture Unstained, 19 July 2019

In an Age of Political Division and Dirty Money, Can Museum Boards Ever Be Immaculate? Some Think They Have Found a Solution, Julia Halperin, ArtNet News, 17 July 2019

British Museum Director Endorses BP as Sponsor as Calls for Divestment Grow Louder,
Claire Selvin, Art News, 10 July 2019

V&A boss proud of funding from US family linked to opioid crisis,
Mark Brown and Amy Walker, The Guardian, 10 July 2019

Street art group withdraws from museum exhibit over arms dealer sponsorship,
Sondos Asem, Middle East Eye, 10 July 2019

Why British artists say oil money shouldn’t fund the arts: it’s furthering of the climate crisis is unacceptable,
Alex Marshall, The Independent, 9 July 2019

British Museum director endorses controversial sponsor BP as part of future vision,
Gareth Harris, The Art Newspaper, 8 July 2019

Mark Rylance resigns from RSC over BP sponsorship,
BBC News
, 21 June 2019

With its links to BP, I can’t stay in the Royal Shakespeare Company,
Mark Rylance, The Guardian, 21 June 2019

The art of sponsorship,
Matt Sutton, Camargue, 21 May 2019

Art institutions should stop virtue-signalling about funding and focus on what they’re showing,
JJ Charlesworth, The Spectator, 21 March 2019

Nan Goldin Says She’ll Boycott National Portrait Gallery If It Accepts £1M Sackler Donation,
Jasmine Weber, Hyperallergic, 19 February 2019

Sky Views: Artists should think twice before they attack business sponsors,
Ian King, Sky News, 1 February 2019

Tate partners with Hyundai to promote non-Western art,
Martin Bailey, Art Newspaper, 24 January 2019,

Private Investment in Culture Survey,
Arts Council UK,

How bad is bad?,
Michelle Wright, Arts Professional, 25 April 2018

Formal Complaint Calls for End to BP Sponsorship of National Portrait Gallery,
Naomi Rea, ArtNet News, 20 June 2017

Oil companies’ sponsorship of the arts ‘is cynical PR strategy’,
Mark Brown and Terry Macalister, The Guardian, 19 April 2016

Arts + corporate sponsorship = a match made in Hong Kong,
Bong Miquiabas, Forbes, 20 March 2016

Why the arts should break free from their unequal relationship with big oil,
Amanda Grimm, Commonspace, 3 March 2016

Museums Association code of ethics,
Museums Association
, 2016

Biting the hand that funds: is the Tate losing out from its association with BP?,
Barbara Speed, New Statesman, 23 April 2015

A critics plea: stop all arts funding now,
Douglas McPherson, Telegraph, 28 May 2015

Italy’s cultural heritage at risk – with private sponsors brought in to help protect iconic landmark,
Michael Day, Independent ,17 May 2015

The sponsorship files: who funds our biggest arts institutions,
Susanna Rustin and George Arnett, The Guardian, 2 March 2015

Biting the hand that funds art,
Tiffany Jenkins, Scotsman, 28 June 2014


Art not oil

Culture unstained

 Arts Council England

BP: Connecting through arts and culture

Museums Association

BP or Not BP