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Following revelations that BP influenced curatorial decisions at the British Museum, Chris Garrard examines how arts organisations should be navigating the tricky ethical territory of sponsorship.

Face-painted man with sign: 'Celebrating the dead, silencing the living'
Arts activists protest at the British Museum's Days of the Dead Late event, sponsored by BP.

Diana More

The writer and playwright James Baldwin once wrote: “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.”

Perhaps today, his challenge should not just be for artists but for museums and galleries too. Artworks and artefacts do not end at the edge of their frame or display case, but flow outwards, fusing with ethical questions of when, where and how they are displayed.

Increasingly, artists and arts organisations are being asked to reflect upon who funds their work and examine whether that funder shares their values. The motivations of a corporate sponsor are not something that should be taken for granted. But in order to do that, we first need to understand our own ethical values.

Perhaps it is by debating and devising ethical codes or fundraising policies that we can find consensus, and a platform from which we can confidently put those values into action. Without that sense of ownership, external pressures may cause us to compromise on them.

A question of accountability

Ethical consistency may seem difficult to test but, in reality, it is clear when two sets of values do not align

My recent report for the campaign group Art Not Oil revealed how BP’s sponsorship of the ‘Indigenous Australia, Enduring Civilisation’ exhibition at the British Museum caused an ethical compromise.

In an email to BP, the museum described a consultation process with indigenous communities as “the cornerstone of the whole project”. But the museum failed to ask many of the Aboriginal communities for their consent to BP’s sponsorship.

According to the museum, “consultation with communities had been completed” by that point. But in not consulting them, the museum made a tacit judgment about what it felt was in their interests and the information they should have access to.

What makes this more problematic is that emails, released under the Freedom of Information Act, appeared to show the museum asking BP if it had “any objections” to the purchase of a painting by members of the Spinifex community. When the museum later argued that this email to BP was simply an update to a sponsor, it missed the point. There should never have been any question that the museum’s accountability to Aboriginal communities could be compromised.

Transparency and respect

The Museums Association’s recently revised Code of Ethics states that museums should “build respectful and transparent relationships with partner organisations”. The words ‘transparent’ and ‘respectful’ should be treated, as far as possible, as absolute terms – is it possible to be just a bit transparent or slightly respectful?

Transparency is significant because BP’s offer of money establishes a relationship of power, and if museum priorities appear to shift, the motivations behind them should be laid bare.

When Philippe de Montebello was Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he promptly returned Chanel’s money when he felt that the sponsor was attempting to “erode” the museum’s curatorial integrity: “I simply can’t have that”, he said at the time.

Aligning values

A key development of the Code of Ethics is that it now states that museums should “seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with those of the museum”. Ethical consistency may seem difficult to test but, in reality, it is clear when two sets of values do not align.

The British Museum claims to be “committed to sustainable development throughout all the aspects of its operation.” But last year, just weeks before BP was due to bid on drilling licenses auctioned by the Mexican government, it enjoyed a valuable networking opportunity with government representatives as part of the museum’s ‘Days of the Dead’ festival (a part of the public programme).

BP’s Group Regional Vice President, Peter Mather, has since conceded, “when there is an option, naturally we are going to try to match a particular exhibition with somewhere we have an interest.”

When a museum knowingly lends itself to a sponsor’s business plan, this is not an acceptance but an endorsement of the sponsor’s ethical values.

Due diligence

The Code of Ethics also highlights that museums should “exercise due diligence in understanding the ethical standards of commercial partners with a view to maintaining public trust”.

For the British Museum to exercise due diligence with regard to BP, it must be thorough. For example, following BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, the company lied to the US Congress about the size of the leak from the Macondo oil well. Even if we put aside the impacts of the spill, BP’s values were laid bare by its actions: the pursuit of its business involved deceit and illegal activity.

It is only when we look at these examples from multiple angles that we gain a full picture of a sponsor’s ethical values.

Ethics in action

My report for Art Not Oil was in some ways an exercise of due diligence, as it sought to expose the hidden ethical questions behind the claims of BP and the museum.

The Museums Association’s Ethics Committee is currently considering the issues the report raised. They may choose to offer an opinion on alleged breaches of the code, or it could be passed to a disciplinary committee for further investigation and face potential sanctions.

But the new Code of Ethics has already demonstrated the benefits of developing a set of agreed values: it has stimulated debate within institutions, provided the basis for training and offered a framework for the public and groups such as Art Not Oil to hold institutions to account.

But any ethical code or fundraising policy should be seen as a beginning and not an end. Due diligence should mean continuing to expose new questions that we may feel uncomfortable confronting.

Art Not Oil’s scrutiny of the British Museum’s BP deal is also a beginning and not an end – it is an invitation for the museum to make its values more visible and put them into action. Dropping BP is the next logical step.

Dr Chris Garrard is a campaigner, composer and a member of the Art Not Oil coalition. He was the lead author of Art Not Oil’s report ‘BP’s Cultural Sponsorship – A Corrupting Influence’.
Tw: @ArtNotOil
E: chris@artnotoil.org.uk

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I've got quite a lot of sympathy for Art Not Oil - I've been donating to Greenpeace for decades, and they of course did a very impressive action at the front of the BM. But from the documents I read in the Guardian, I think your implication that the BM crossed a line in how they consulted BP about Aboriginal art, is at the very best misleading. BP originally gave sponsorship so that the BM could commission an original piece of art for their exhibition from the Aboriginal collective. However, BM then found out that there wasn't enough time to create a new piece, and so decided the best course of action would be to buy something ready made instead. Since BP had given money for one thing (special commission) and BM now wanted to spend money on something else (existing artwork), it is pretty obvious that they had to flag up their change of use - I doubt it's legal to take money from any sponsor for one stated use and then use it for another. Happily everyone was reasonable about it and the purchase went ahead. I bet when you got hold of the redacted papers you wanted to find something not above board - and perhaps that's why you're overclaiming for what you found. I would positively like to see oil companies retreating from arts sponsorship, but I think less of Art Not Oil for putting an unwarranted spin on things. The risk is that people inside large museums - who after all also have to occupy this planet, and may be secretly sympathetic - will just feel misrepresented and therefore feel hostile. Your central argument - that greenwashing oil companies shouldn't get affirmation from the heart of society by sponsoring cultural events - is a very strong one. Please be careful not to undermine that point by fudging the facts elsewhere.

Thank you for your comment. The full report I refer to draws upon 53 key pieces of material which had been drawn from hundreds of pages of emails and documents. This particular email, about the purchase of a painting from the Spinifex community, sits within that broader context of concerns and illustrates the particular position BP holds within its sponsorship deals. For example, a British Museum presentation slide disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that, "Promoting the museum's partnership with BP" was its top marketing objective. In this case, and this is what I highlighted here, is that there was a marked contrast between the museum's engagement with BP about exhibition content and its engagement with Aboriginal communities about BP's sponsorship. Regardless of whether that email had a tangible consequence or not, it poses some important ethical questions, both about sponsorship and engagement with communities. It is particularly significant in this case as, during the exhibition, a number of Aboriginal communities were requesting the return of objects held in the museum's collection and that were put on display. Another part of that wider context is that at the time of the exhibition, BP was actively working to pursue drilling in the Great Australian Bight where it hopes to drill four ultra-deepwater wells. It is a project that has been opposed by many organisations but also by an elder of the Mirning people. If a full process of due diligence with regard to BP's ethical values had been undertaken in relation to this exhibition, then all these aspects, from the more explicit to the more nuanced, would have been more carefully considered and the museum should logically have made different decisions.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that funders and curators need to be separated at the line of programmatic planning, I have to agree with the previous commentator and point out slight speculation on the Metropolitan Museum issue. It's just a very different case that involves the legacy of Coco Chanel, The House of Chanel as a creative entity and the brand of Chanel as a corporate entity. You can't put together an exhibition on Coco Chanel's legacy without involving the House of Chanel. Chanel-the-brand, which automatically comes along, could have been receiving standard sponsor benefits as part of their package (entertainment, logos, etc. -- we can only guess), and that funding was pulled because the concept of the exhibition fell through. The incident does appear to be an argument between co-curating sides -- not an unprecedented thing in that world, I assume. So what I'm trying to say is that it's just not really comparable to the BP sponsorship troubles because in this case somebody who works for Chanel, i.e. Karl Lagerfeld, was legitimately, and inevitably, involved in the exhibition planning (a bit too much to Museum's liking).

Thank you for your comment. There is a contrast in the role of a corporate sponsor that has some connection to exhibition content and one that does not, but the principle of curatorial independence is common to both. I asked Philippe de Montebello about the risks of corporate sponsorship at an event last year, citing the BP case, and he referred to the incident with Chanel. For him, the mere suggestion of curatorial integrity being undermined was significant, especially where that external pressure was linked to a corporate agenda. For BP to have a member of its staff sit on the judging panel of the National Portrait Gallery's 'BP Portrait Award' while BP's regional Vice President talks openly about matching interests to exhibitions, the erosion of curatorial integrity is arguably already higher than the threshold set for Chanel by de Montebello.