The sustained critique by environmental activists, artists and parts of the art world, of the sponsorship of Tate by BP (and funding from other oil companies), looks like it might be having an impact. Certainly, a statement from Nick Serota of Tate gives the appearance of reconsidering this source of funding.
It would be deeply unfortunate if they severed the relationship. Tate, and the others who spend the oil shillings – the British Museum, Natural History Museum, London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and National Portrait Gallery – should take the money and thank BP for their generosity. BP gives a substantial amount to a number of organisations and individuals which means they can create art work; that that art work is well promoted and the public gets to see it. One of my favourite annual exhibitions – the BP Portrait Award – would not be possible without it, and the lucky artist who wins gets a whopping £25,000.
The most recent critique is from Platform, Art Not Oil and Liberate Tate who have collaborated on Not If But When: Culture Beyond Oil, in which they ask, when – not if – will oil sponsorship of the arts end, arguing that accepting the money legitimises corporations that damage society and ecosystems. It’s certainly thorough, thoughtful and serious, it’s just that I disagree with them.
The arts have always been funded by people and organisations that you might have a problem with: the Pope, Medici, Borgias and private corporations; the powerful and the wealthy who have the money to do so, and the desire to improve their reputations, which has meant they will pay for good art work. In many cases this has been very successful – just look at the Renaissance.
And, whilst I don’t view oil companies with rose-tinted glasses – far from it – they are legitimate and legal companies that produce oil which is something we all need and use. Could they do it better? Yes. Do we need to find an alternative to fossil fuels? Yes. But pressure can be applied whilst also funding the arts.
It is a complex relationship, of course. It is very likely that all funders try to interfere, a bit, depending on what they can get away with and there is no doubt that this sponsorship is PR for the oil companies. Where and when they do try to interfere, this should be exposed and resisted, and where these companies warrant critique, this should continue, loudly.
As it happens, in the last decade, it is the publicly funded arms-length bodies that have supported some of the worst art with strong strings closely attached. There are too few critical voices of state imposed instrumentalism. For example, Philip Goff from Art Uncut, in Culture Beyond Oil, argues more public funding is a solution. Goff should rethink, for I cannot think of anything more controlling and stultifying. In these times of cuts and austerity, it is also unlikely.
I want the arts to be funded, for artists to be free to explore whatever idea they want, and for access for the public to be free or as cheap as possible. We need a mixed funding scheme to achieve this. The more funders from a diversity of sources the better, and that includes oil companies.