Comment: British Museum's BP Cheerleading Shows Why Big Oil Loves Arts Sponsorship

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Protest against BP at the British Museum

By Jess Worth, Co-Director of campaign group Culture Unstained

Why do Big Oil companies sponsor some of the UK’s most prominent cultural institutions? Because it gives them PR that advertising dollars simply can’t buy.

Never was that more obvious than on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight last week, where British Museum chair Sir Richard Lambert quipped “I don't want to do a PR job for BP”, then proceeded to do just that.

Lambert was responding to a serious challenge to the museum's integrity and reputation. Trustee and celebrated Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif had just resigned, citing the museum's intransigence on BP sponsorship, workers' rights and the repatriation of artefacts taken without permission in colonial times. In an eloquent and devastating article in the London Review of Books, Soueif revealed that in 2016 she had raised concerns about BP’s high-profile sponsorship of major exhibitions:

It was an education for me how little it seems to trouble anyone – even now, with environmental activists bringing ever bigger and more creative protests into the museum. The public relations value that the museum gives to BP is unique, but the sum of money BP gives the museum is not unattainable elsewhere.”

I can only think, therefore, that the museum, which has just reaffirmed its relationship with the oil giant, does not wish to alienate a section of the business community, and that this matters more than the legitimate and pressing concerns of young people across the planet – including the schoolchildren who are a target audience for the museum.”

'Alternative facts'

For a museum that got £54 million last year in public funding, another £22 million from members and visitors and around £375,000 from BP (it contributes less than one percent of the museum's income though the exact amount is a closely guarded secret), one might hope that the Chair of its Trustees might engage thoughtfully in the debate around how to balance its public responsibilities with the need to raise funds from a range of sources.

But instead, Sir Richard Lambert came out fighting BP's corner, taking lines that seem to have come directly from BP's greenwash playbook.

One of the most egregious included:

BP has tens of thousands of employees in the UK, pays substantial taxes in the UK, and makes a product most people use one way or another.”

Actually, BP employs around 16,000 people in the UK. And a just transition to clean, renewable energy will create three times as many jobs as the current fossil fuel industry provides, according to a new report by Friends of the Earth Scotland, Oil Change International and Platform.

On tax, Lambert could not be more wrong. Shockingly, BP paid ­no tax in the UK last year, despite making profits of £5.6 billion. Instead, it actually received tax credits worth £134 million, making it a net beneficiary of taxpayers' funds, rather than contributing to the cost of running the country as it should. This scandalous scenario is the direct result of BP and the North Sea Oil industry's lobbying and political influence.

And yes, we are currently far too reliant on fossil fuels, and we need to transition away from them fast. This would be going much better if companies like BP weren't spending many millions lobbying intensively to prevent it happening at the scale and pace required.

It gets worse. Lambert went on to claim:

BP has aligned its strategy to Paris 2015, which not all energy companies have done, and it does not invest in heavy oils or tar sands or stuff like that.”

Wrong again, Richard. BP has said its strategy aligns with the Paris climate goals. But in reality it absolutely doesn't.

To prevent temperatures rising more than 1.5 degrees, as Paris aims to do, there can be no new oil and gas extraction or infrastructure, and some of the reserves already in production need to be left in the ground. Compare this to BP's plans. Global Witness have crunched the numbers and found that more than half of BP’s $140 billion planned investment in oil and gas over the next decade is carbon we cannot afford to burn if we’re to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Meanwhile a paltry three percent of the company's investments are earmarked for renewables.

BP's claim to be ‘Paris aligned’ depends on the massive future scale-up of the oil industry's favourite technofix, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. But CCS is unproven and has no chance of being expanded to the levels required for BP to continue its massive programme of oil and gas extraction and yet somehow be neutralising its emissions.

And to claim BP doesn't invest in tar sands is just plain wrong. It does, both in extraction and refining of this highly polluting heavy oil. Indigenous communities and investors have been calling BP out on this for a decade but, unlike other oil majors such as Shell and Statoil/Equinor who've pulled out of the controversial Canadian industry, BP has doggedly refused to leave.

Increasing pressure

So what's going on here? The British Museum has always claimed that BP has no influence over what it says or does. So why has the chairman suddenly started bandying about figures designed to silence BP's critics?

It is perhaps a sign that they are feeling the pressure. While criticism of BP sponsorship of culture stretches back more than a decade, the last few weeks have seen the heat turned up to scorching.

On June 10th, the day the winner of the prestigious BP Portrait Award (another jewel in BP's arts sponsorship crown) would be announced, eight portrait artists who had either won the award or been shortlisted in the past, and artist Gary Hume, one of this year's award judges, spoke out against BP. The award ceremony itself was then the target of theatrical protest group BP or not BP? who blocked all three entrances to the National Portrait Gallery while artists painted live portraits of environmental defenders resisting BP around the world. In extraordinary scenes, the VIP guests were forced to clamber over a wall to get into the ceremony.

The following day it was the Royal Opera House's turn. Over 200 musicians spoke out against BP's sponsorship of the 'BP Big Screens' of opera and ballet, the first of which was due that evening. It was attended by a large Extinction Rebellion troupe who made their opposition very visible and audible. They then protested at the subsequent two BP Big Screen events this month.

A week later, it was the Royal Shakespeare Company's turn, when Oscar-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance resigned as an Associate Artist over BP's sponsorship of its £5 ticket scheme for young people, sparking international headlines. This was swiftly followed by Gary Hume and the portrait artists writing to the National Portrait Gallery again, this time joined by some 70 other leading artists, including five Turner Prize winners such as Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread and Anish Kapoor. 

Soueif's resignation last week has ramped up the pressure another notch, and triggered an unprecedented public statement of support for the stand she's taking from around 200 British Museum staff who are members of the PCS union.

Money is no excuse

The museum, and the other BP-sponsored theatres and galleries, can no longer pretend to be neutral and hide behind the defence that they need the money.

Tate and BP parted company in 2016 without any obvious financial penalty to the galleries. In fact, this has freed Tate up to become the latest major arts organisation to declare a climate emergency.

With the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests attracting ever larger numbers, the realisation that business as usual is no longer an option has entered the mainstream. Our best-known and most trusted cultural institutions are at risk of seriously damaging their reputations if they don't now move fast to scrub those BP logos from their visages.

The British Museum’s two-footed leap to BP’s defence on national radio suggests this is either a risk it is willing to take, or it has not yet got the message. It's not a good look for an organisation that is supposed to be a custodian of the world's cultural heritage, nor for a trustee who claims to be bound by his 'fiduciary responsibility to support the public good'.

Ironically, in the same interview Lambert (who used to be Director-General of the CBI and Editor of the Financial Times) acknowledged that “energy companies can't exist in their present form in thirty years' time. The question is, how do we get from here to there?” He's right, although his timeframe is a bit off - it should be ten years. But it's very clear to all concerned that major changes are coming and BP is not a good bet in the long term.

Hopefully the museum will now, finally, investigate for itself the realities of BP's business operations rather than continuing to parrot the company's own spin.

In giving this spirited defence, Lambert appears to be suggesting that the museum would not be ok if BP's business plans clashed with the Paris climate goals, that it wouldn't be comfortable if a sponsor didn't pay its fair share of taxes, and that any company operating in the tar sands raises an ethical red flag. If that's the case, then presumably they will be looking for alternative sources of funding for their exhibitions, and fast.

We can only hope the museum comes to its senses and repositions itself on the right side of history. Right now, the British Museum is being played, and giving BP a priceless PR boost just when it needs it most.

Image credit: Diana More

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