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For more than 10 years, Chris Garrard has been active in demanding accountability from some of our major cultural institutions around the ethics of accepting sponsorship.

Climate change activists with banners protesting inside the Science Museum
The Fossil Free Science Museum coalition hold an unofficial book launch inside the museum for ‘The Science Museum Group: an unravelling tragedy’, which shines a spotlight on how its new Adani sponsorship deal was agreed


"It is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic." James Baldwin, ‘The Creative Process’
When activists started showing up at Tate and the British Museum over 10 years ago denouncing the BP logos on their walls, panic was perhaps the reaction of many in the arts world. Or, for the directors of oil-sponsored cultural institutions, irritation that their cosy relationships with these unethical corporations were being called into question.
Fast forward to today and most cultural organisations in the UK – including Tate, Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre and Royal Shakespeare Company – have cut their ties to fossil fuel funding, with similar shifts unfolding in the Netherlands, Australia and the US. Companies such as BP and Shell, once thought responsible energy providers and generous patrons of the arts, have been exposed as the major polluters and cynical sponsors.
What brought about this rapid ethical shift was a campaign that wove together eye-catching creative protests, in-depth research exposing the motives of fossil fuel sponsors, and powerful interventions by affected groups, from arts workers in oil-sponsored institutions to communities resisting the impacts of oil and gas extraction. Rather than the efforts of any single campaign group, this growing ‘movement for fossil free culture’ has turned the tide on oil sponsorship.

Ethical red line

Well, almost. Even now, the Director of the Science Museum continues stubbornly to defend taking money from major fossil fuel producers, including BP, Equinor and, most disturbingly, the coal-producing conglomerate Adani, which will sponsor a new climate change gallery. He claims the funds are coming just from the part of the Adani Group involved in renewable energy - although a recent report accusing Adani of corruption on "a historic scale" emphasised how all of the conglomerate’s companies are "intricately linked". 

Claiming you’re sponsored only by Adani Green Energy when you’re fully aware other branches of the firm are ramping up their involvement in coal mining and coal power simply aids Adani’s 'greenwash', where big polluters cynically overstate their climate credentials.
The International Energy Agency has made clear that to reach net zero by 2050 there can be no investment in new oil, gas and coal, which puts sponsors like BP, Shell and Adani firmly beyond an ethical red line. However, while the impacts of climate change intensify, the ethical challenges become more urgent and complex, as we grapple with questions of systemic change. 

Growing scrutiny

There is growing scrutiny of the benefits on sale to sponsors, from high-profile naming rights for new galleries to prestigious venues for corporate events. Many now question the acceptability of taking money from fossil-fuel investing banks and high-carbon emitting companies such as airlines.
For example, leading filmmakers recently called on the Toronto International Film Festival to end its sponsorship deal with the world’s biggest financier of fossil fuel projects, Royal Bank of Canada. A few months earlier, 50 authors urged Edinburgh International Book Festival to cut its ties to Baillie Gifford over its investments in fossil fuels.

Also, while BP’s sponsorship of exhibitions at the British Museum was not renewed earlier this year, the company’s name still tarnishes its ‘BP Lecture Theatre’. 80 figures from heritage, arts and climate backgrounds have now called on the museum to end that association with BP, just as it removed the Sackler name last year. 

In response to this shifting ethical landscape, the temptation might be to panic and question whether any money is truly “clean”. In reality, it’s an invitation to expand our definition of due diligence for prospective sponsors, so that we start to examine the systemic picture and determine who really are the drivers of change and who are the obstacles to progress. 

Dislodging the narrative

In his essay ‘The Creative Process’, James Baldwin writes: “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

This is the challenge we must take on. Breaking away from seeing oil companies as responsible providers of energy involves dislodging a narrative that the fossil fuel industry carefully cultivated over decades of political influence, disinformation and sponsorship deals. 

Similarly, breaking away from the notion that unethical sponsors are a necessary evil to adequately fund the arts requires us to think beyond a model of philanthropy that too often prioritises the interests of powerful groups.

We need to ask whose engagement with the arts was being valued when the Sackler family sipped champagne at the opening of a new museum wing that would bear their name, or when BP bosses rubbed shoulders with repressive governments at exhibition openings. 

Meaningful commitment to climate justice

If philanthropy and sponsorship is to evolve in response to these changes in wider society, can they become less about transaction, power and influence, and more rooted in accountability and shared values?

If so, it might also require some reflection first – problematic partnerships often reflect an underlying imbalance of power or unresolved ethical conflict within the institution. 

A meaningful commitment to climate justice means addressing these root causes, confronting questions about capitalism, colonialism, race and representation. As a consequence, we might start to see our own organisations and our funders in a new ethical light.

And if we then decide to remove their logos, we must also do the difficult work of asking how they came to be there in the first place. 

Chris Garrard is Co-director of Culture Unstained.
@TheGarrard | @Cult_unstained

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Photo of Chris Garrard