Tax, Oil, Capitalism, Censorship: Corporate Sponsorship and the Arts

Originally published on Spoonfed, August 2011.

It hardly really needs saying, but these are complex times. Politicians are yet to fully emerge from the shadow of the expenses scandal; countless tabloid journalists stand accused of phone-hacking; and members of the Metropolitan Police have allegedly been in the pocket of News International. We’ve seen resignations, but no accountability. And all this amidst worrying cuts across frontline public services, almost a week of riots across London and the rest of the UK, reactionary babble spouted in Parliament, and the announcement by Beck’s of six major arts commissions for their Green Box Project campaign. This last one might not seem relevant, but bear with me…

I’m not proposing to be able to explain why the institutional pillars of British society have let us down so badly – I’m merely an art critic – although I will say in passing that the party-political blame game (Labour’s profligacy vs Tory savagery) is invariably simplistic and frequently unhelpful. Rather, this is the background for the issue at hand – namely corporate sponsorship of the arts. When times are good, few question the morality of the system, the corruption in the boardrooms; indeed few question their own complicity, their own ethics, hypocrisy and petty prejudices.

The last couple of years have seen the growing involvement of big business in the nation’s arts institutions, and with this growing involvement, growing scrutiny. With the government in debt to the tune of 76% of GDP, the Coalition implementing 29.6% cuts to arts funding, and individuals increasingly reluctant to spend their own hard-earned pounds, the future of this country’s arts institutions may increasingly come to depend on investment from corporate sponsors. Now, then, might be a good time to examine the potential consequences.

Most major museums and galleries already rely on corporate sponsorship to a greater or lesser extent: the National Theatre receive money from Travelex, Accenture and Aviva; the Old Vic from American Airlines, and the Royal Opera House from Deloitte; Bloomberg sponsor the Roundhouse. as well as loads of other events and organisations, whilst alcohol brands like Beck’s, Courvosier, Pernod Absinthe and Hendrick’s are well-known for their involvement in the arts. Spoonfed itself is a member of the Courvosier Future 500.

PROTEST

But whilst most of these are link-ups that people are either unaware of or unconcerned with, certain arts institutions are now finding themselves under increasing pressure for being involved with sponsorship deals of a more controversial nature. Art collector Anita Zabludowicz, for example, is occasionally criticised for the origins of her dosh: her father-in-law founded Soltam, an Israeli ‘defence contractor’, known for their artillery, mortars and ammunition. I know of curators who refuse to work with her because of it.

More publicly (and unsurprisingly given the devastation caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010) any organisation involved with oil giants BP has come under real fire. The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. have both had their share of protests in the last year or so, but it’s the Tate that has born the brunt of the protests.

After various protests, and an open letter signed by the likes of No Logo author Naomi Klein, Stuckist co-founder Charles Thomson, and musician/artist/polymath Billy Childish, the latest demonstration comes in the form of ‘Tate a Tate’, an audio tour featuring artists Mark McGowan and Ansuman Biswas among others, and commissioned by Art Not Oil, Liberate Tate and PLATFORM (who incidentally are part funded by the Arts Council).

But it’s not just BP. July saw Tate announce a new partnership with Vodafone, which launched with the catchily named Tate Debates, an online discussion of museum apps. This was systematically hijacked by UK Uncut, who were protesting against Vodafone – in the news a lot recently for allegedly not paying a £6 billion tax bill, and being let off by Dave Hartnett, the big boss man at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, despite, according to Private Eye, advice to the contrary from HMRC’s own lawyers.  The central argument they made was that if Vodafone simply paid their tax bill in full, Tate wouldn’t need to resort to these kinds of corporate sponsorship deals in the first place.

CONSEQUENCES

Sponsorship relationships with brands of this sort have various consequences. The first and most obvious is the damage it can do to the reputation of a hitherto respected institution. One need only recall what happened in 2009 when oil trader Trafigura was dropped as the sponsor of Cynthia Corbett’s art prize (now called Young Masters) following numerous scandals (and subsequent Carter-Ruck injunctions) to see the danger of being associated with such a ‘toxic’ brand.

In the case of Tate, the contradiction between the institution’s own environmentally progressive agenda and their relationship with BP is a stark one. Tate’s 2015 Vision states their desire to be sustainable, by, among other things, “demonstrating leadership in response to climate change”.

As Kevin Smith of PLATFORM acknowledges, “They [Tate] do brilliant education work and regularly exhibit artworks that celebrate human rights and creative freedom,” but all that is threatened by the association with BP. “No amount of work to cut carbon emissions in the museum sector can mitigate the effects and devastation that BP is having on both the environment and peoples lives right now. If Tate want the public to take their efforts to make cultural change around the issue of climate change seriously, they need to think ethically about where their money is coming from.”

But this is a complex issue. Does taking money from an organisation constitute approval of all its activities? Certainly, that seems to be the argument used against the likes of Tate for taking the ‘dirty dollar’ of BP and Vodafone. But if this is the case, then does accepting government money (in the form of Arts Council funding) constitute approval for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? A counter-argument might be that in this case the government are merely a conduit: this is tax-payers’ money. But Harold Shipman paid his taxes. Does taking his money endorse his horrific crimes? Well, no of course not.

The difference, I suppose, is that by taking money from a corporate sponsor, there is an accompanying agreement – explicit or otherwise – that you are indeed approving of their activities. As a spokesperson from Tate Modern tells me, “Tate’s policy regarding ethical fundraising is outlined in Tate’s Ethics Policy”, a policy which states, “Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when…acceptance of the funds would… significantly damage the effective operation of Tate in delivering its mission”. If this mission includes, as above, “demonstrating leadership in response to climate change” then surely there is a contradiction here?

Similarly, Neil Evans, Senior Press Officer at National Portrait Gallery (who host the annual BP Portrait Awards) says: “We wouldn’t work in partnership with a sponsor if we were unsure about the ethics of receiving support from them.”

CENSORSHIP

Statements such as these hint at the second important issue. By taking money from BP, these institutions have put themselves in the position where they are compelled to support (or at least be seen to support) their sponsors. From here, it’s not a million miles to institutional censorship. Kevin from PLATFORM cites two examples where this has already taken place, at Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre. I quote:

“The first happened at Tate Modern when organisers and attendees at the art activist workshop ‘Disobedience Makes History’ were told not to make any interventions against BP, Tate’s sponsors. The workshop group decided to collectively disobey this missive and Liberate Tate was born. More recently the organisation I work for, PLATFORM, experienced another form of censorship when we were told not to display leaflets that were critical of Shell on a stall at an event we were speaking at  at the Shell sponsored South Bank Centre.”

Interestingly, Jude Kelly from the Southbank Centre replied by saying:

“We have no policy at all that instructs staff to avoid criticism of sponsors… We would not create the programme of debate, polemic and inquiry around controversial and contested subjects if we separately wished to censor criticism. Nevertheless, we are to blame for not giving staff a clear guide that supports them [to] understand the apparent contradictions that can seem to arise in a world where sponsorship and free speech live side by side. If there was confusing action that is our fault not theirs …”

And Smith again:

“In both cases it was not policy, but in both cases the culture of fear or marketisation took precedence over freedom of speech… This is not straightforward ideological censorship, but marketised censorship that ultimately maintains the link between sponsorship and advertising at the expense of freedom of speech. As such it might be seen to be more insidious than out and out ideological censorship.”

Stories such as this make for worrying reading indeed, but then to some extent they’re probably much more common than we imagine. Closer to home, one might cite the grey area of media partnerships and advertorial by way of example…

COMPLEXITY

One question then is whether the source of an institution’s income is in contradiction to its ethos. But it’s also more than that. Back in April following the announcement of funding decisions by the Arts Council, contemporary artist Stuart Semple wrote eloquently for Spoonfed about his personal experiences collaborating with brands like Moncler and Aubin and Wills. Clearly, there’s no obvious ethical contradiction there. These are companies that sell nice clothes, don’t (as far as I know) exploit their workers, and certainly don’t leave massive oil slicks lying around the world.

Similarly, the involvement of big insurance firm Catlin in the arts is one to be celebrated. Established in 2007 Art Catlin incorporates both the Catlin Art Guide, a shortlist of the best 40 artists to have graduated that year from art colleges across the UK, and the Catlin Art Prize, a prize of £5,000 awarded to the most promising. The benefits are many and wide-ranging, as Justin Hammond, independent curator and author of The Catlin Guide, explains: “If Catlin wasn’t involved I’d still be doing this but it would be on a much smaller scale. Their support allows us to present the prize exhibition in a large space and launch to a greater fanfare.

“[Catlin Art Guide] is beautifully designed and produced. The slipcase alone is incredibly expensive to manufacture – I’d be forced to compromise if I was financing it myself – and don’t forget we give most of the copies away for free.”

And there are similar benefits for the artists: “Both The Guide and the Prize have facilitated new opportunities for the featured artists in terms of networking, sales and future exhibitions. Of course, these artists wouldn’t have faded into obscurity had they not been featured, but we’ve certainly provided a springboard. The prize money is vital too. Look at Russell Hill – this will pay the rent on his studio and allow him to continue his practice without worrying too much about the financial implications of not making overtly commercial art. I think that’s really important. The same is true of last year’s winner, Reynir Hutber.”

And yet…Catlin, who give so much to the arts in this country, have been ‘based’ in Bermuda since 1999, a strategic move designed to minimise payment of UK taxes (at least according to Gerald Farr, an analyst for Seymour Pierce, quoted in the Independent). What are we to make of this?

THE INDIVIDUAL

In the wake of the London and UK-wide riots of the past few days, several commentators have articulated the age-old question of whether the looting perpetrated by the rioters is all that different from the looting perpetrated by the likes if Goldman Sachs, Vodafone and even, to a lesser extent, Catlin, under the name of “tax avoidance”. Surely, it’s just a question of directness, right?

One might argue that as Vodafone have been allegedly allowed off their tax bill by Dave Hartnett, then surely it’s his fault and not theirs. Well then does that mean the looting of the past few days is the fault of those who have allowed it to happen, rather than of the looters themselves? Well, perhaps.

And here’s another way of looking at it: when the politicians’ expenses scandal flared, there were those who pointed that everybody is guilty of similar sins – making personal calls on the office phone, claiming post-pub cab rides on company expenses etc. Similarly, there’s probably not a journalist in the country who hasn’t occasionally ‘neglected’ to notify the authorities about the odd bit of freelance work – £100 here, £100 there. Is this different from the actions of Vodafone in anything except for quantity? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, perhaps?

In the same way, everybody seems happy with the involvement of big alcohol brands in the arts, and that’s in part because art openings are so notoriously boozy. But not so long ago tobacco sponsorship was an accepted part of of everyday life. Its prohibition is universally regarded as A Good Thing (although a certain David Hockney might disagree). Now that we know how damaging alcohol can be to our health, and how much it costs the NHS every year, how long will it be before alcohol advertising/sponsorship comes into question? What then for those artists who have been so keen to take the corporate dollar from companies like Beck’s?

INTEGRITY

In the final analysis it comes down, I think, to a question of integrity. Or rather it comes down to a series of questions about integrity:

1. Does the involvement of a particular brand compromise the integrity of the event?
I’ve seen Rebel Dining Society ruined by the overwhelmingly branded involvement of Pernod Absinthe (let’s hope Bombay Sapphire do a better job when they take over as partners).

2. What do you do when actions of a sponsor contradict the ethics of the artist or institution?
As is arguably the case with Tate and BP and, to a lesser extent, Vodafone.

3. Are your judgements on a large corporation consistent with your own actions as a citizen?
If not, perhaps it’s time for a little self-scrutiny.

As the PRs at Tate and National Portrait Gallery have said, they examine each potential sponsor on a case by case basis. And it’s up to each and every individual to do the same. If you’re happy to endorse arms dealers, environment wreckers, tax avoiders and peddlers of wares that nobody needs or wants, then so be it. And if you’re not, then maybe before you judge, you do some research, and you do some self-analysis.