Should the Tate Gallery have refused BP’s corporate sponsorship following Deepwater Horizon?
16th December, 2015
On 20th April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, sinking the rig and causing the largest marine oil spill in history. Following the disaster, the news coverage surrounding BP thrust the spotlight on the oil conglomerate’s sponsorship programme – most notably their 26-year long relationship with the Tate Gallery in London.
Since Deepwater Horizon, pressure has built for the Tate to end this relationship. The greatest criticism has been levelled by pressure groups Platform and “BP or not BP”, whose argument centres around the premise that cultural institutions like the Tate should not be accepting sponsorship from corporations with debatable environmental records.
Corporate sponsorship v corporate philanthropy
BP or not BP’s argument that the conglomerate is “not doing this (sponsoring the Tate) out of the goodness of its heart” is correct. Corporate sponsorship involves no philanthropic element yet pressure groups leverage their argument around this demonstrating how misunderstood the relationship between corporates and the art world is.
Corporate sponsorship is a business transaction and differs markedly to corporate philanthropy, which is where a corporation makes a charitable donation with no expected return. Sponsorship, on the other hand, is entered into by corporations for the rights available through the fee they pay. These could be naming rights which, in BP’s case, have been activated through the BP Displays series.
Benefits v reputational damage
As an indication of the benefits of BP’s quarter-of-a-century long sponsorship, 37 million people have visited BP Displays, BP’s free collection displays across the Tate group of galleries. Of those, 6m schoolchildren have visited the Displays and BP’s Art Exchange, which provides access to the Tate’s collection and archives, has reached 10,000 schoolchildren in 50 countries since its launch in September 2013.
Despite the short-term reputational damage to the Tate through being associated with the Deepwater Horizon spill and the subsequent fall-out, it is clear the benefits of BP’s long-standing commitment to the gallery far outweighed the temporary reputational damage. This was reiterated by the Tate’s trustees who concluded the “benefits of BP’s support far outweigh any quantifiable risk to our reputation.” They added “BP fit within our (sponsorship policy) guidelines and their support has been instrumental.”
Corporate sponsorship of public bodies
There has been little evidence of overwhelming public rejection of BP’s support for the Tate, particularly after Deepwater Horizon. The public response to BP’s sponsorship has been led by marginal environmental pressure groups combined with a smattering of Tate members and artists.
As a non-departmental public body, funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and home to the national collection of British art, the public have a right to be involved in the debate surrounding corporate sponsorship of the Gallery. However, BP’s sponsorship has been scrutinised a number of times by the Tate’s Ethics committee who have concluded that “taking a moral stance on the ethics of the oil and gas industry remains outside of the Tate’s charitable objectives”.
This lack of public support to end the sponsorship was most apparent this summer when protest group Liberate Tate spent 25 hours scrawling climate change messages on the floor of a Tate exhibition. Thousands of visitors passed through believing them to be part of the exhibition, with the protest not even registering on the public’s consciousness.
When approaching potential corporations for sponsorship, arts organisations should be mindful of these issues. Furthermore, when a deal is struck, they should seek to communicate the nature of the sponsorship, the benefits to the organisation and the wider public in order to directly challenge detractors.