Arts funding has never been a pretty picture

Shrill anti-BP campaigners don’t realise that state funding for the arts is more problematic than money from Big Oil.

Tiffany Jenkins

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If you have spent any time in a British art gallery recently, you may very well have BP to thank for the experience. Along with its rival, Shell, BP is one of the most generous sponsors of the arts. It is a major donor to the British Museum – currently funding its Italian Renaissance drawings exhibition – the Royal Opera House and the Tate galleries. It supports the Almeida theatre, the National Maritime Museum, as well as the Science and Natural History Museums.

The BP Portrait Award – for which the prize for 2010 has just been awarded – is always a joy to see and a highly prestigious competition. The first prize of £25,000 has helped to launch the careers of numerous portrait artists who otherwise might not have been able to earn a living from their work. It’s not easy to survive as a painter or photographer, but competitions like this make it possible for a few, while promoting the efforts of many others to an interested audience.

Despite this essential generosity, in the past few weeks, following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, there has been increasing agitation over the sponsoring of the arts by BP. Just last month, Liberate Tate – a network dedicated to ensuring the museum drops its sponsorship deal – entered Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and released dozens of helium-filled black balloons with dead fish and fake oil-soaked birds attached (although I am unclear how anyone could tell that this stunt was a protest and not a modern art installation). Last week, activists from the environmental groups Rising Tide and Art Not Oil targeted the BP Portrait Award ceremony at the National Portrait Gallery.

On Monday, the group Good Crude Britannia, made up of artists, poets and filmmakers, picketed Tate Britain’s summer party. The event was billed by the gallery as celebrating 20 years of BP’s sponsorship. The chair of the Tate and former head of BP is Lord Browne of Madingley.

The aim of all this activism is to stop galleries and museums from accepting oil money. Jane Trowel of Platform, another arts campaign group, said: ‘We hope that, as happened with the tobacco industry, it will soon come to be seen as socially unacceptable for cultural institutions to accept funding from Big Oil.’

A week on from the announcement of austerity measures in the new Liberal-Conservative government’s Budget, most people in the arts are worried about their future financial position. Yet some campaigners are arguing that the arts world should get even less money, wanting, it would seem, to apply salt to the wound. What are they thinking?

Puntastic names aside, these campaigns have little merit. The cultural sector relies heavily on funding from the state, big companies and rich individuals. This mixed funding system is the best way to organise cultural output, because the diversity of support generally gives artists and organisations the freedom they need to create and show the work that we want to see. Too much money from one source could mean dependence, which can result in safe work and little experimentation.

In these hard economic times the arts world must not turn down vitally important funds. After all, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has just announced a £19million reduction in support for the current financial year for the Arts Council. And more detailed cuts will follow. It is not clear, yet, how the financial problems will hit big sponsors, philanthropists and donations, but there is no doubt that budgets will tighten.

It is important to hang on to sponsors, not to denigrate and dismiss them. It is also essential to defend them in situations like this one. But the reaction from the arts world to the anti-oil money campaigns has been a little lacklustre, consisting primarily of a joint statement by the Tate, the Royal Opera House, the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. They said: ‘We are grateful to BP for their long-term commitment. The income generated through corporate partnerships is vital to the mixed economy of successful arts organisations and enables each of us to deliver a rich and vibrant cultural programme.’

The Tate also issued a separate statement saying: ‘BP is one of the most important sponsors of the arts in the UK, supporting Tate as well as several other leading cultural institutions. Tate works with a wide range of corporate organisations and generates the majority of its funding from earned income and private sources. The board and ethics committee regularly review compliance with the policy.’ This is a limp defence. The arts world cannot and should not hide behind ethics committees – what have they got to do with creativity and experimentation? They should be bold and come out fighting. To demand that any organisation should drop a major funder at any time is pretty presumptive; to follow the demands of these activists in the current circumstances would be suicidal.

The arts have always benefited from funding from people whose company you wouldn’t seek out and probably couldn’t even if you wanted to: the elites and the wealthy, the church and the state, kings and queens. One of the greatest works of the High Renaissance – the Sistine Chapel – would not have been painted by Michelangelo had it not been for the commission of Pope Julius II.

Yes, at times this means artists might have to hold their tongues. But even then, they don’t always do so. There will always be tension between artists and funders, and rightly so.

In fact, given the funding landscape of the past 15 years, money from BP and other oil companies is far preferable to that from other sources, particularly the state. Under the Labour government, public funding of the arts was high. But as the DCMS repeatedly lectured, the subsidy was not ‘something for nothing’.

Arts groups, practitioners and cultural institutions were – and still are – directed to deliver a range of instrumental benefits for society: to create social inclusion, raise self-esteem, improve health and education, increase community cohesion, reduce crime, and, of course, improve economic outputs. All in return for state funding. In 2002, the DCMS explicitly called museums and galleries ‘Centres of Social Change’. Arts Council funding schemes have been more interested in the ethnic make-up of the audience, and often the sexual preferences of the creatives, than the work on show.

Government funding in recent times has been accompanied by expectations, directions and conditions about the artwork and the audiences. Too few picketed and protested when they were told what to do, how to create and who for. The only demand attached to money from companies like BP has tended to be that a logo is displayed on publicity, a few parties are thrown and egos are flattered. This is hardly insignificant, but it is a lot less demanding and explicit than the demands that come with state money.

Besides, the idea that oil money is really bad, unlike other money, is not one I buy into. It is not the case that there is ‘good’ money from nice companies that recycle and ‘bad’ from others that don’t. All companies are out to make a profit, most cut corners in doing so to one extent or another, and most should pay their workers more.

The art that oil money supports will last for years and give pleasure to millions. Without it, where would these organisations and their audiences be? Artists would be paid even less, while being controlled and interfered with more. The Tate’s five-year sponsorship deal with BP is up for renewal in spring 2011. Let’s hope they give us another 20 years.

Tiffany Jenkins is an academic and cultural commentator. Visit her website here.

Previously on spiked

Tiffany Jenkins argued against cultural diplomacy. Jan Bowman argued that artists should not accept state funding. John Dennen wished the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition had not tried to be so relevant. Josie Appleton called an eco-stunt at the British Museum’s Terracotta Warrior exhibition ‘childish’. Or read more at spiked issue Museums and galleries.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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