In December 2023, the British Museum announced a new £50m partnership with BP, six months after the end of their previous sponsorship deal was hailed by climate protesters as a ‘seismic shift’ [Ref: Culture Unstained]. Climate groups immediately announced plans to protest it and pursue legal action to block the deal, while reports emerged of ‘strong personal disagreement’ among trustees [Ref: Museums Association]. This follows a decade of campaigning for major arts institutions to divest from fossil fuels [Ref: BP or not BP?]: in 2019, a trustee of the British Museum resigned in protest against the Museum’s relationship with 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].
The Sackler name is another high-profile example of the push in recent years for arts institutions to reject funding from bodies deemed ethically questionable. In February 2019, the American photographer Nan Goldin threatened to boycott the UK’s National Portrait Gallery if it accepted a £1m donation from the Sackler fund, which was deemed controversial given the Sackler family’s connection to the opioid epidemic in the US [Ref: Guardian]. Numerous arts institutions have since stopped accepting Sackler funding including the Tate [Ref: Guardian], the Louvre [Ref: Art Newspaper] and the V&A [Ref: Guardian].
Since then, the protest group Just Stop Oil has gained notoriety for high-profile stunts in art galleries. While the group’s target is not ending sponsorship from oil companies but rather the fossil fuel industry as a whole [Ref: BBC News], the intersection of galleries and fossil fuels has continued to draw attention to the environmental impact of fossil-fuel corporations, and kept alive the discussion about whether art can or should be ‘immune’ from urgent contemporary issues [Ref: The Conversation].
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 are 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 art? Or do cultural institutions compromise artistically and ethically when they seek corporate funding?
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
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 is of ‘growing importance’ to arts and culture organisations [Ref: Arts Council UK]. At the same time, some older institutions such as the British Museum urgently need funds “due to the deteriorating condition of the fabric and infrastructure” [Ref: Museums Association] to ensure the security of both collections and visitors, on such a large scale that they “have to consider corporate and private donations” [Ref: The Guardian]. Some argue that rejecting desperately-needed sponsorship from corporate sponsors because of pressure from protestors is “a form of institutional suicide — at a time when other means of support are declining or non-existent” [Ref: The Spectator]. Some also question whether protestors represent public opinion: the British Museum released polling that shows “the public were in favour of museums accepting donations from the oil and gas sector, and preferred corporate donations over taxpayers’ money” [Ref: The Spectator]. But sponsorship from large corporations is often only a small part of overall funding. BP’s sponsorship provided less than 1% of the annual income of the British Museum and the Royal Opera House, and just 2.9% of the National Portrait Gallery’s [Ref: BP or not BP]. Nevertheless, supporters of corporate sponsorship ask who will make up the funding lost if we refuse corporate sponsorship. Currently 30% of arts investment comes from the public purse, 20% from private investment and 50% from tickets [Ref: Arts Council UK]. However, a shake-up in Arts Council funding has seen a £50m drop in funding for London’s institutions [Ref: The Art Newspaper], with the possibility of further future cuts. Increasing ticket prices is one option to cover the funding shortfall but is unpopular with the public [Ref: Guardian]. Amid the cost-of-living crisis, some galleries have in fact been offering discounted tickets to increase accessibility [Ref: Guardian], potentially decreasing this source of income as well.
What counts as unethical funding?
Critics of corporate funding question whether corporate funding can be ethical. Some argue that oil companies such as BP fund arts institutions as ‘a form of reputation laundering’ [Ref: Art News]. The campaign group BP or not BP?, which worked to stop arts institutions from entering into funding agreements with oil company BP, argued: ‘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 left the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 2019, claimed that the RSC was ‘allowing itself to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities’ [Ref: Guardian]. Critics have accused the art world of ‘hypocrisy’, by ‘displaying conscientious art in institutions that benefit from [ethically-questionable] companies’ [Ref: Fine Art Multiple].
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: 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]. Some dispute the accusation that businesses invest in the arts as ‘reputation-laundering’, and that the true aim is to promote ‘intellectual cross-fertilisation’, which helps to ‘generate ideas and innovation’ [Ref: Financial Times].
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: 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: Spectator], and asks 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.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Why shouldn’t the British Museum take BP’s cash?
Jawad Iqbal Spectator 19 December 2023
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, 2019
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