The Tate-BP Partnership: What we know now

After a three-year legal battle, which started off as a freedom of information request, how much cash have BP actually contributed to the mighty Tate?

Over the period disclosed, from 1990 to 2006 inclusive, BP’s sponsorship of the Tate was £150,000 a year (1991-2000) and then £330,000 a year (2002-2007). The disclosure comes following the work of campaign group Platform, Request Initiative and law firms Leigh Day and Monckton Chambers.

That’s just £3.8m over 17 years. To put those figures into some perspective, Anna Galkina (Platform) describes them as representing about 0.5% of Tate’s budget. As she said: “Tate can clearly do without BP.” It’s time for them to divest.

A key further issue in the process has been commitment to transparency. By hiding their sponsorship figures, Rosa Curling (Leigh Day) said, “Tate’s actions have prevented proper public debate over the acceptability of the sponsorship.

Aside from the hard figures, details have also been released regarding the Tate’s charitable and development objectives.

Its arguments for retaining sponsorship from BP are as follows:

  • ‘BP is a significant figure in British corporate life and Tate is a significant figure in British cultural life. BP’s support currently enables Tate to further its charitable objectives.’
  • ‘Taking a moral stance on the ethics of the Oil and Gas sector, and the Canadian Oil Sands initiative in particular, is outside of Tate’s charitable objectives.’

And the arguments against:

  • ‘Environmental activism is on the rise. The oil and gas industry is appearing as the recipient of public scrutiny, disapproval and negativity, in the same way as the tobacco industry was in the 1990s.
  • ‘Tate has taken a public stance on sustainability and is arguably the cultural institution most in the public eye in the UK. In light of this the reputational risk to Tate of retaining BP as a partner is significant.

‘The Executive view is that currently the benefits of BP’s support for Tate far outweigh any quantifiable risk to our reputation.

‘However the relationship between Tate and BP should however be reviewed on a regular basis in light of a continually changing environment.’

Let’s unpick that.

Their first point for retaining sponsorship is basically saying that BP and the Tate are on a level playing field; top dogs in their respective spheres. That’s obvious – corporate sponsorships with the arts are always between organisations alike in scale and reputation. I don’t quite see how that’s an argument, other than it being an evident pragmatic point. Are they trying to make a point about prestige? Who knows.

‘Taking a moral stance on the ethics of the Oil and Gas sector, and the Canadian Oil Sands initiative in particular, is outside of Tate’s charitable objectives.’ I’m sniggering. Of course it is.

‘Environmental activism is on the rise.’ Way to go pointing out the obvious, again. It’s good that they consider the likenesses to the tobacco industry, at least.

Then let’s consider the fact that Tate promises to review their sponsorship ‘in light of a continually changing environment’. Well, first of all that’s tenaciously ambiguous. What do they mean by ‘environment’? Do they mean the environment of public opinion or the natural and climatic environment? In either case, this being their basis for review is almost ridiculous. If they mean public opinion – I’d say that was already pretty angry.

But if they mean the climate – well – how bad would it have to get for them to review their policy? Does it matter that nearly every scientist in the world agrees that humans have initiated climate change? That climate change is, as far as anyone knows, definite? On what point on this ‘continually changing’ scale would the Tate find it necessary to change their charitable objectives? When we have reached the point of 2-degrees-no-return? How exactly do they intend to measure the ‘continually changing environment’? It’s wishy-washy. In fact, it’s an absurd proposition.

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter @rebekahellerby.

Follow me for live tweets from the conference Take The Money And Run? – held by Artsadmin, Home Live Art and Live Art Development Agency in collaboration with Platform – on Thursday 29 January. The discussion on the ethics of arts sponsorship kicks off at 10am. I will be using #DropBP hashtag during the day. If you’d like me to ask a particular question during the talks, send them over to @rebekahellerby.

To read more about the ethics of corporate sponsorship more broadly, check out this blog post.

For more information about BP and sponsorship, look at Platform’s Critical Report, here.

For a detailed look at BP’s detrimental effect to the US Gulf Coast, see this article.