BBC BLOGS - Gomp/arts
« Previous | Main | Next »

Should arts institutions do anything about BP?

Post categories:

Will Gompertz | 14:52 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010

Corporate sponsorship of the arts is not a charitable endeavour; it's business. A company expects to extract maximum value from its association with an arts institution or event, just as those in the arts expect to extract maximum value from their be-suited patrons.

BP Portait Award at National Portrait GalleryThe three main motivating elements are:
• private entertaining: exclusive behind-the-scenes access, private views, the best seats in the house
• brand association: some of the perceived glamour and integrity of the arts will rub off onto the sponsoring company
• staff retention: this only really comes in to play in a boom

These are known as "benefits" and will form the basis of the deal between the sponsor and the "rights holder". Now, in my experience the most successful sponsorships - the ones where both sides are happy - are those that are built around private entertaining. It's an easy benefit for the arts institution to provide and for the sponsor to value.

Where it gets trickier is the brand-association area. If the main reason for a company to sponsor an arts event is public exposure and enhanced goodwill, sport is, frankly, a much better bet. An exhibition, play or classical concert doesn't have the same reach, no matter how much the sponsor spends on advertising their association - known as leveraging.

Even a "property" with as high a profile as the Turner Prize or the Edinburgh Comedy Awards struggles to find and retain sponsors when the commercial object of the exercise is brand fame.

The other problem with a sponsorship built around brand association is when one of the parties loses its allure. Companies are quick to dump damaged goods such as a misbehaving celebrity. But arts organisations are loath to do the same; they would rather bank the much-needed money.

BP leakSo the current situation, where more than 170 creative artists have put their names to a letter attacking Tate Britain for accepting BP sponsorship is not straightforward, especially when money is tight elsewhere. Plus, many of those institutions that have benefited from BP's sponsorship over the years - such as the Royal Opera House, the British Museum, Tate and the National Portrait Gallery - will cite the oil company's loyalty and good manners. BP is known to be one of the least demanding sponsors and one with expectations which tend to be more realistic than most.

But for many, the company is now damaged goods, its reputation as spoiled as the Gulf of Mexico. What should the arts institutions do? Wave goodbye to a steadfast supporter when their need is greatest because of fears that their own reputations may be sullied by association? Or tough it out and hope the whole messy episode will be forgotten by Christmas?


  • Comment number 1.

    If you sup with the devil... you may not always come up smelling of roses!

    It is rather silly for sponsored companies to react now - it suggests that they did not know what they were doing when the accepted the sponsorship. Rather like Formula 1 and cigarette sponsorship!

    BP is unlikely to continue sponsorship in the short term anyway - dividends will come first.

    Whale meat burgers anyone!!!!

  • Comment number 2.

    Depends on if they are sponsoring the oil paintings....

    ...well if you won't go for the obvious bad joke..... ^^

  • Comment number 3.

    We need BP - we don't need these artists . Britain would be better off without them.

  • Comment number 4.

    The telling number for me is 170. Is this all they could find to sign their protest letter? I notice that not many of the names mentioned are known as ''creative artists'', the kind who might aspire to have their work exhibited inside these galleries, so I assume they are speaking as celebrity-visitors. This makes the number even more lamentable.

    And why now? Why not at any time over the past 20 years of BP sponsorship? I think we all know why now and it all seems be born of mindless, knee-jerk, bandwagon outrage at a tragic error of judgement because the world wants cheap oil, including most of those 170. And how many of these boycotted BP products before this event? Not nearly as many as 170, I bet.

    As long as I drive a car, ride in a train, or fly by plane, I can't really complain about oil sponsorship of the arts. I'm grateful for our galleries; who else is prepared to sponsor them?

  • Comment number 5.

    "And why now? Why not at any time over the past 20 years of BP sponsorship? I think we all know why now and it all seems be born of mindless, knee-jerk, bandwagon outrage"

    A little research would soon show that this claim is false. Platform have been campaigning about this and related issues for decades though with little coverage from the mainstream media, including the BBC. The US oil leak means that the mass media has taken more interest than they usually do, the campaigners can hardly be blamed for making use of it in their campaign.

    The financing of these companies has also been campaigned on for decades, with a little more mass media interest. The campaign has been boosted by the US oil leak, but the campaign was running long before that oil leak. Climate Camp were discussing campaigning about the Oil Bank of Scotland long before the US oil spill and they will bring their unique brand of campaigning to the Scots soon

  • Comment number 6.

    And I see that the London Olympics have got into bed with BP so I imagine that there will be a lot of campaigning about that.

    The contempt with which the olympic torch was treated in London, on its way to the repressive regime in China, and the protests in China provide a foretaste of what will happen in London unless big business and its vassal government start to behave responsibly.

  • Comment number 7.

    I've attempted to answer your question on my CultureGrrl blog today:

  • Comment number 8.

    I have been following this story with interest since it broke but I understand that this art protest campaign has been going on for some years by various groups of artists that make their living from art, such as Art Not Oil, Platform and more recently Liberate Tate who were responsible for the action at Tate Modern 10th birthday celebrations and were also involved in yesterdays joint action with the group mentioned, the good crude britannia. Solidarity colombia are also linked to a human rights campaign directed at BP. Wow it would be easy to get confused with all those names and any wonder that the BBC and others have got it all mixed up.

    One of the things that stand out for me in the venomous comments on this and other pages directed at the artists that signed the letter is that many people are missing the point. In Britain we are in the privileged position of being able to protest when we feel outraged or wish to open a debate that is closed without being in fear of our lives from armed police or the military, such as we have seen happen recently in Thai Land. And I don't think Tate would disagree as it often shows more than a little interest in artists that are also activists.

    The oil business is a very difficult and dirty business and this is exactly why it works so hard to give sponsorship to British cultural institutions such as Tate. Surely we are not blind enough to miss this? It is a manipulation of the arts and it allows the company to continue to do business in a highly volatile political climate. And if dangerous climate change is not a good enough reason for you to disapprove of BP as a viable sponsor then surely the allegations of human rights abuses around the world or the recent oil spill is.

    Re the "we need BP' comment, I would recommend Professor Goodstein's Book 'Out of Gas: The end of the Age of Oil' and maybe you would change that comment to "We need artists but we don't need BP"

  • Comment number 9.

    As we enter this so called new age of philanthropy, this sort of thing is going to happen again and again. What are the arts to do? take the cash and survive or alienate their core audiences and die?

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm told to do a ''little research'' to get my facts right. A fair point, I think. You shouldn't take what you read here, or anywhere, on trust.

    I read a copy of the open letter to The Guardian signed by 170+ signatories referred to in the article above and to which my criticism was aimed.

    I might be mistaken but I see no indication that this letter came from the chronic protest group ''Platform''. In fact, I could only find a lone signatory, Jane Powell, who admits membership of this group and she doesn't sign herself as being a creative artist.

    Should I do more research?

  • Comment number 11.

    Do we expect art institutions to shut up and take the money no matter where it comes from? Are we that desperate? To my mind the only thing that will kill the art if indeed art can die, is exactly that: shutting up and selling out whilst knowing that what is making you rich and successful is causing environmental devastation, climate change and someone else where in the world great suffering. It can't be easy to come out publicly and burn ones bridges, I think we need to support our British artists.

    How long do we think it will be before the financial markets turn their backs on oil? Tate won't hesitate to follow suit when that times comes. Why do you think oil companies are drilling in more and more hazardous places like deep water or going into the Tar sands of Canada? Because oil is getting harder harder to find, after this accident in the gulf of mexico drilling like this will be uninsurable.

    And finally if you are not impressed by the 170 + signatories then please remember it was just 15 people meeting in a public house in London that started the anti slave trade movement. Brave people like that fought for everything we take for granted with their own lives.


  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.