UK Moves to Banish Oil Companies from Cultural Institutions
We heard recently about efforts in the Netherlands to sue the government over its failure to act on climate change. A similar effort was unsuccessful in the US a number of years ago, but the shadow of possibility still exists.
Now, we have another story—this time out of the UK—about efforts by activists to forcibly eject Big Oil and its corrupting influence from Britain’s cultural institutions.
Under the guise of “sponsorships,” some of the world’s biggest “supermajor” oil companies—particularly British Petroleum (BP)—have been enjoying close ties with important cultural treasures such as the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House, and Tate Britain. Given that BP was the recipient of a $13.7 billion fine in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it seems curious at best that they would be allowed so visible a platform upon which to build their false reputation as a socially responsible company.
The mistake would be pretending that BP’s huge fine is not heavily symbolic; indeed, it represents one of the clearest examples that major oil companies no longer operate with the best intentions of the public at heart—if they ever did. Given all that, allowing them to leverage cultural institutions for their own PR purposes seems like a reprehensible lack of judgment.
It’s a story we’ve already seen play out in the United States with tobacco companies. Tobacco sponsorship, for the most part, is now a thing of the past. The parallel is appropriate; I’d be just as uncomfortable seeing a BP logo plastered all over MoMA as I would be if it was Marlboro or Camel instead.
At this point, you may be wondering where sponsorship money might come from if these companies are forced to pull out. You’re not alone; the prevailing narrative right now is that some of Britain’s cultural institutions are being buoyed by these corporate entities, but the truth is a little different. It turns out that BP’s contribution to, for example, Tate Britain, does little to ensure that admission remains free.
What Impact Will This Have?
As an overture to the more forcible litigation in motion now, an earlier legal battle forced BP to disclose just how much money it contributes to Tate. The results were a little underwhelming. From 1991 to 2007, BP’s contributions averaged $364,000 per year. In other words, this is pocket change for the company that commands the world’s fifth-largest revenue stream.
But, you might be thinking, Surely that money means more to Tate than it does to BP. Are they not making a difference? The answer is no. Not really. BP’s sponsorship represents barely 0.5% of Tate’s total annual income. In other words, BP contributes almost nothing.
The Court of Public Opinion
In his recent book, Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, Mel Evans explores why this kind of sponsorship isn’t sitting well with the general public: “Sponsorship buys you so much more than advertising—it’s about this association with prestigious institutions that are central to Britain’s cultural imagination and history. These sponsorships are essential to their daily operations; without them they are outsiders, multinational corporations in tax havens.”
An apt description, and one that’s hardly unique to British companies. In America we also have a tendency to enshrine in law helpful considerations for multinational corporations, particularly destructive ones. These range from tax breaks and subsidies to full-blown tax loopholes that nobody in Congress seems particularly interested in closing (Gee, I wonder why).
But I find BP’s infiltration of cultural symbols to be, if possible, even more upsetting and creepy. Art and culture are meant to speak to something within us—to give us something to identify with on a personal level that yet binds us together as members of society. Turning this universal forum into yet another advertising medium shouldn’t sit well with any of us.
If you’re looking for an even stronger indictment of oil companies’ motivations, just ask Raoul Martinez, who’s on record describing their motives as “a crime against humanity on par with genocide.”
More Than Backlash
Society thrives when it’s able to reach consensus. And except for a few out-of-touch or hopelessly corrupt old, white men in Congress, the world agrees: fossil fuels are, well, fossils. They belong to an age when scientific ignorance shielded them and when there was no Internet to fully disclose and disseminate the true scope of their crimes.
In other words, big oil companies have completely squandered whatever good will they used to have, and instead of working to earn it back by investing in clean sources of energy or efforts to engage in civic involvement (as some smaller companies do) they’re doubling down on fracking and drilling and attempting to force unnecessary, ill-advised, and (depending on who you ask) illegal pipelines down the throat of a nation that’s simply had enough of their greed.
In speaking about banishing BP from Tate: “It is an act of democracy,” agrees Mel. “The ballot box is not enough. If these spaces really are public, then we, the public, have to be able to change them.”
And change them we will. I’m pleased that the UK is making progress banishing these companies from public cultural forums. That space should be reserved for people—and perhaps even corporations—who have not failed so spectacularly at being good citizens.