Polluting Public Culture

As more arts institutions cut their ties with BP, the British Museum has yet to follow suit – but we need culture that isn't stained with big oil's profits.

The British Museum is one of only two arts organisations willing to continue participating in the reputation-salvaging process of artwashing. (Tamara Menzi / Unsplash)

The National Portrait Gallery has announced that it won’t renew its partnership with BP when its current agreement expires in December, ending thirty years of sponsorship. Though the official statements vaguely suggest that the decision comes from BP looking for ‘new ways to best use [their] talent, experience, and resources’—strange phrasing for a partnership that was supposedly purely financial—the NPG’s relationship with BP has been heavily criticised and protested by artists and organisers associated with the Art Not Oil collective for years now, part of the wider movement against oil sponsorship in arts and cultural institutions. It’s the third major organisation supported by BP to end the relationship in the wake of protest, the first being Tate in 2017, followed by the RSC in 2019.

Now, BP is left with only two arts organisations willing to participate in the reputation-salvaging process of artwashing. The Royal Opera House hasn’t responded to similar protests, clearly preferring to stay out of the spotlight for the time being, and its Big Screens programme supported by the company has been suspended due to the pandemic anyway.

Which leaves the British Museum. Reports last week, based on documents acquired by campaign group Culture Unstained, suggested the management of the Museum was exploring renewing their relationship with BP beyond its current expiration in 2023, in spite of this relentless pressure and criticism. In addition to this, they also revealed the existence of a sketchy ‘Chairman’s Advisory Group’—an anonymous and unaccountable group of representatives from major corporations who have been privately consulting with the Chair since at least 2013, and which most likely includes BP and other controversial companies.

The presence of George Osborne at the helm of the board makes this even messier. Osborne devastated arts funding in his time as chancellor, but managed to give oil companies—including BP—tax breaks, and is deeply enmeshed with BP-allied companies like BlackRock, Exor, and Robey Warshaw.

It’s no surprise that Osborne is happy to accept the influence of the Chairman’s Advisory Group, but what is concerning is the apparent acquiescence of the other trustees. After Ahdaf Soueif resigned from the board in 2019 with a public statement that specifically called on the Museum to rethink its relationship with BP, nothing seems to have changed at the top. Why is the British Museum standing by a company like BP? What is it that isn’t sinking in here? The relationship between the British Museum and BP has been protested continually for nearly a decade, and yet the news suggests the Museum is actively negotiating a new sponsorship deal. The Museum apparently believes that nothing can actually meaningfully harm their reputation—not these documents, not the resignation of a trustee, not protests.

It’s right that the British Museum should be protected from direct governmental interventions as a non-departmental public body, but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond all scrutiny, and as long as it claims charitable status and public funds it must be transparent about what money it gets from where, and who informs its decisions. In a statement to the Art Newspaper in November last year, the museum defended its relationship with BP on the basis that its financial support was essential for exhibitions, pushing the argument that funding cuts mean oil money is the only thing keeping the lights on.

This is unequivocally false. Though we don’t have the exact figure of what the British Museum has received, BP’s arts and culture funding is relatively small: £7.5 million, split between four institutions, distributed over the five years between 2018 and 2023. In comparison, the Museum received £39 million in donations and legacies in 2020—the BP money is less than one percent of its income.

Cuts to arts funding are, justifiably, a major talking point on the left and in the culture sector, but the idea that these gaps must be filled with private sponsorship is a neoliberal trick. Direct action is essential in pushing institutions to break with their sponsors, but we have to also work to make a world beyond sponsorship, where companies pay complete and accurate taxes and that money is used on social and cultural programmes.

With the revelation last year that BP hired Welund, a private security firm specialising in ‘detailed reporting into all threats from politically-based campaign groups’ to spy on organisers involved in anti-BP protests, and the implication that the British Museum received some of this information, we have to ask what else is happening behind the scenes to make the Museum think continuing to work with BP is a good idea. Culture Unstained and the Art Not Oil group are doing essential work, but it’s work that shouldn’t be necessary. Individual members have put themselves at risk of surveillance and harassment to push for information that should be publicly available, and that the Museum continues to hide.

If an institution takes money from a corporate sponsor, it also takes on some accountability for that corporation’s behaviour. The Director, Board, and Trustees of the British Museum are in part complicit in BP’s environmental devastation, because they profit by it. The Museum is made up of individuals: all the trustees who sat by and watched Soueif resign and did nothing, who are watching the Museum’s endless obfuscations around its finances and influencers, are helping to steer it to its death.

BP is beyond redemption. No amount of artwashing can launder their reputation, and nor should it. The question now is whether they will continue to taint arts institutions in the attempt.