29 Apr 2014

‘Climate of fear’ over corporate sponsorship in theatre

Sunday at the art gallery has become a British institution. But now galleries, museums and even theatres are becoming a battleground – between corporate sponsors and their opponents.

Protesters on Sunday staged a performance protest at the British Museum, dressed as Vikings, to oppose the sponsorship of the current Vikings exhibition by oil company BP.

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It wasn’t clear at first if the majority of punters knew it was a protest – since interactive exhibits are common these days and it was quite low-key.

BP logo on shields

The BP logo on the shields and the sight of big hairy men dressed as Vikings chanting “No BP!” as they marauded past the tea towel section of the shop soon clarified things.

They sang songs, declaimed an Icelandic saga for a bit under the eye of perplexed security guards, then symbolically ejected themselves.

Sheila Menon, one of the actors in the protest, said they were there to expose what she called “Greenwash” – the practice of companies boosting their reputation by attaching their brand to philanthropic giving to the arts.

“What we want the institutions to do is to drop the oil sponsor completely, because it’s providing them with a greenwash, veil of deceit that makes them look like they’re good in the world, and that they’re essential to the arts, when they are actually wreaking devastation across the planet”

It’s not just museums that are getting the protest treatment. Protesters have disrupted performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company and events at the Royal Festival Hall – and say they’ll go on until the arts establishment rethinks.

Now they have an ally in a major figure in British theatre: the playwright and director Mark Ravenhill.

“There’s been a pressure on arts organisations in last the 30 years to go after big philanthropic donations,” he says. The trouble is what is ethical and what is not. Once you get into sponsorship by big oil companies, ethical questions are raised and big arts organisations have fought shy of those questions.”

Philanthropy v banking

Mr Ravenhill was a director at the RSC last year, which has previously taken sponsorship from BP. Other major theatres, for example the National Theatre, are heavily sponsored by banks.

“There is an irony to fact that theatre thinks of itself as a democratic institution – and buildings are heavily branded with banks,” says Mr Ravenhill. “We thought theatres were spaces that could address the big problems in the world.

“It turned out that for a decade the biggest problem was the banks. But theatre is in too deep and can’t afford to sever ties with banks or big oil”

Like the protesters, Mr Ravenhill believes there’s a distinction between the philanthropy of rich individuals and what corporations get from having their logo stuck to a major cultural brand:

“With big corporate sponsorship it’s not just a case of philanthropy. It’s about an image problem. Your name can be rinsed, washed clean, tarnished brands remedied – I’ve never heard anybody wake up and say I want to launder a brand that’s been tarnished – they want to put on a good play to a diverse and growing audience.”

Mr Ravenhill has created many critical and controversial plays. I ask him whether he would accept oil sponsorship for a piece he has created. He says often artists are not given the choice. But is there discussion behind the scenes, I ask?

“It’s surprising how muted the questions are that are asked,” he says.

“Two or three actors in a green room might whisper a few doubts – but there is a climate of fear in the theatre. Most people are on short term contracts; everyone is very scared to stick their head above parapet and there is explicit pressure from the Arts Council: we must never be seen to say no to any form of corporate sponsorship. There’s a real fear if you don’t take corporate money your public money will be withdrawn.”

External support

BP, which currently has a £10m sponsorship deal with four big arts organisations, told us:

“BP is a proud supporter of the arts in the UK. It has given its financial backing to the arts for over 35 years. BP’s investment in long term partnerships with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and Tate Britain represent one of the most significant long-term corporate investments in UK arts.”

The British Museum, reacting to Sunday’s protest said: “The British Museum is exceptionally grateful to BP for their loyal and on-going support which has allowed the museum to bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely popular exhibitions and their associated public programmes…

“The British Museum believes it is more important than ever to deepen people’s understanding of the world’s many and varied cultures and this is something that can be achieved through the temporary exhibition format. It is only possible to develop and host temporary exhibitions with this kind of external support.”

Clearly big art’s dependence on big corporations is not going to go away. Government arts spending was slashed in the last spending round and the emphasis for all organisations remains: rustle up more corporate money. But a growing number of artists are wanting at least consultation over what logo their work is going to appear next to.

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