BP or not BP? That is the question…

BP or not BP? That is the question…

Well, it’s one question - one of the many posed, challenged and occasionally answered at Take the Money and Run: An Event about Ethics, Funding and Art. I for one definitely came home with more questions than answers, but maybe that’s a good place to start when talking about a topic as tricky and subjective as ethics.

The event, hosted by ArtsAdmin, Live Art Development Agency, Platform and Home Live Arts, saw a huge turnout of people across the sector - including independent artists, professional fundraisers, Arts Council representatives, and non-arts activists. This made for a fascinating debate which never settled on an easy conclusion, and offered up some perspectives that really challenged some of the approaches we as fellows have been learning about. And whilst that was difficult at times - to defend your position, or admit you’ve changed it - it’s an invaluable process to go through.

If you’ve been following the arts sector news recently (or in fact since 1990), you’ll be aware of the controversy around BP’s sponsorship of the arts and culture in London. Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery all receive significant funding from BP, which contributes towards their excellent work and free access for the public. In a time of austerity and cuts into the foreseeable future, arts organisations need to think creatively about diversifying income streams - but ethics, of course, need to be considered.

Tate has a concrete ethical policy written in 2008 by which it makes funding decisions, and BP’s actions don’t explicitly conflict with this document. And, judging by attendance figures, the controversial relationship doesn’t seem to have had a significant impact on their public reputation.

Nonetheless, anti-oil voices were prominent throughout the day, including provocations from members of Liberate Tate, BP or not BP, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Platform. Tate was forced to reveal, only two days earlier, that it receives on average just £224,000 a year (0.5% of Tate’s annual budget, i.e. a huge amount of “whitewashing” promotion for BP for an arguably minor benefit to the arts). This seemed to be a surprise to most - it’s a huge reputational risk in return for a sum of money that they could fairly easily survive without. The risk is increasing too, with activist groups continuing to grow and stage ever more high-profile stunts.

But even aside from the business concerns, taking sponsorship from BP is certainly an ethically risky move. Discussing whether to renew the relationship in 2010, the ethical committee did acknowledge the evident contradictions:

“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.” (http://platformlondon.org/p-pressreleases/tate-forced-to-reveal-bp-sponsorship-details/#sthash.TNx2XuNJ.dpuf)

Yet their award-winning sustainability values don’t feature explicitly in the ethical policy, and so the committee deemed that “it was the right thing to continue with BP” said director Sir Nicholas Serota. If it’s not directly excluded in the ethical policy, can it therefore be viewed as ‘unethical’ from an organisational perspective, no matter what your personal feelings might be?

The ‘Art not Oil’ voices would argue yes - unethical sponsorship taints the whole organisation and the art inside it: from the artist feeling constrained to produce work that fits the sponsor’s desires; to the curator eschewing risk in favour of guaranteed audiences (and markets); to the employee in 2010 who has to attend a “thank you” event celebrating BP during the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill. And for the viewer, who comes to see art precisely because it represents something more than money, but they are greeted at the door by the ironic flower logo of the corporation 3rd most responsible in the world for climate change. (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/20/90-companies-man-made-global-warming-emissions-climate-change)

In the end it comes down to more than just reputation and money. It’s about integrity and transparency – and art. Fellow Rachel put it well when she says: “it wasn’t really a debate. A debate ideally needs two sides of the argument, whereas from the start there was a clear winner – art.” So, what is more unethical: to reject BP sponsorship and refuse to endorse their unethical operations, but therefore make cuts to art and/or access? Or to take the money and run?

Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy have drafted a best practice Ethical Fundraising Policy Template which is available to download.  Please contact Michelle Wright if you are a Trustee or CEO interested in exploring further how to implement such a policy – michelle.wright@cause4.co.uk