New Internationalist

Tate faces members’ revolt over BP


Liberate Tate: Human Cost, Tate Britain, June 2011. Photo: Immo Klink.

Tensions ran high at the Tate Modern on Friday 7 December. At the members’ AGM, the Tate Members Council and Director Nick Serota were met with yet another barrage of criticism over their longstanding sponsorship arrangement with controversial oil giant BP.

For some time campaigners have argued that BP sponsorship is not an act of art-loving philanthropy, but a shrewd business deal contributing significantly to BP’s construction of a ‘social licence to operate’.This helps them to evade public or political pressure even though its operations involve such terrible consequences to communities, ecosystems and the climate. In the last couple of years, this has driven art-activist collective Liberate Tate to use Tate gallery spaces to carry out a series of dramatic, unsolicited performance interventions that contextualize the reality of BP’s operations.

The Tate Members Council isn’t really a decision-making body, but it is there to represent the views of over 100,000 fee-paying members. It is the largest membership body of any cultural institution in Britain, generating more than £5 million ($8 million) annually. This year, some members sent a letter to the council laying out a number of concerns about the sponsorship relationship, and came along to the AGM to flag it up in person.

At the very start of the meeting, the council’s chair, Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow, acknowledged that space would be given to discuss the BP issue, but I don’t think he or Nick Serota or deputy head Alex Beard were expecting the tricky questions to come so thick and fast as they did, and not only from those representing the letter-writers.

Tate’s Ethics Policy states that Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when: ‘The donor has acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds, for example when funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct.’

Earlier this month, BP agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion settlement for criminal charges regarding the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, on top of a number of similar court cases in recent years. Serota defended the stance, saying that BP’s operations aren’t ‘fundamentally’ criminal – but it seems like an awful lot of criminality is stacking up as part of the whole picture.

The meeting’s discussion kept returning to the sum of money that Tate is getting from BP. Despite being a public body, and having been the subject of numerous Freedom of Information requests, Tate refuses to disclose the actual sum, saying that it would be ‘harmful to commercial interests’. It seems that this might be a convenient strategy to cover up how little the sum might actually be.

The dominant discourse that Tate likes to maintain is that ‘terrible things will happen if we don’t have the BP money’ – but not disclosing the amount of money prevents any real debate from taking place about what those ‘terrible things’ may be, and whether there might be any alternatives. Under information law, the ‘commercial interest’ defence can be outweighed by the ‘public interest’ argument – so what Tate is effectively doing is prioritizing BP’s commercial interests in the sponsorship arrangement over the public’s interest in discussing how Tate could find alternatives.

At the end of 2011, BP made a sponsorship deal worth £10 million ($16 million) over five years with four different cultural institutions, including Tate. If you divided it equally, and if this is the only money that Tate is getting from BP, you’re talking about just £500,000 a year. That’s a tenth of what Tate raises from its membership scheme, prompting one woman at the AGM to exclaim, ‘is that all?’ In the 2011/12 financial year, Tate’s incoming resources were £113 million ($182 million). So this possible contribution from BP represents less than half of one per cent of Tate’s total income. Could  Tate really not accommodate a budget shortfall of less than half of one per cent?

Here are a couple of ideas for starters – how about holding a referendum among Tate members to see if people would be willing to increase their membership fee by a couple of pounds to accommodate the shortfall? Why not aggregate a bunch of smaller, but more ethical, companies to co-sponsor Tate in a co-operative fashion?

Tate seems to be making excuses for institutional inertia after having received BP money for more than 20 years. With an increasingly climate-conscious public, and the certainty of more disasters like Deepwater waiting to happen, it’s high time it took concrete steps to disentangle itself from Britain’s most controversial corporate sponsor.

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