The controversies around energy companies sponsoring cultural events

Oil companies have a long tradition of sponsoring cultural events. In this energy tradition, however, there is growing concern that this should stop, given we are doing all possible to address climate change. Nick Butler provides a good blog in the Financial Times that argues that such sponsorship should be accepted. What are your views?


Why cultural institutions should accept oil money

Should oil companies fund cultural institutions? That was the question raised last week by a group of celebrities and academics who called on the new director of the British Museum to end BP’s role as one of the museum’s leading sponsors in the interests of curbing climate change.

The argument is wrong for three reasons.

First, it is clear that the loser from the ending of the relationship — and presumably all other relationships between cultural institutions and the industry — would be the museum rather than the company. If the museum were to turn away BP’s money, there would be no shortage of other takers, including many outside the UK. The campaigners are not offering to cover the funding gap and they avoid suggesting what cuts the museum should make to balance its books. What is clear is that without the funding, the museum could not have put on the great exhibitions, covering everything from the Vikings to Ancient Persia, that have drawn in tens of thousands of people in the past decade.

Second, the campaign is wholly negative. The campaign’s supporters, including Greenpeace, seem to have failed to notice that after December’s Paris conference, the climate debate has moved on to a more detailed analysis of technology and regulatory policy.

The issue is serious and deserves something better than slogans and gestures. It would be more constructive, for instance, for the campaigners to encourage the German government to drop its support for coal production, to accept some form of carbon tax in Europe and to reverse its mindless closure of nuclear power stations, which serves only to push up emissions.

Third, there is a whiff of hypocrisy around the list of signatories, as several of those who signed the letter work in institutions partly funded by oil and gas company money. It is much easier, I suppose, to tell others that it is morally right to be a vegan while you yourself tuck into a tasty bacon sandwich.

In my view, business sponsorship of the arts, culture and academic work is a good thing and I am proud that when I worked for John Browne — when he was both chief executive of BP and a trustee of the museum — I helped in a small way to build the link between the two institutions.

What matters are the terms on which money is given and received. There should be no interference in the intellectual or artistic judgments of the institutions that accept money. The funding should be transparent and where possible the sources should be diverse so that no institution becomes unduly dependent on any single funder. The relationship should also be long term, reflecting a serious commitment rather than just a transaction.

That is the way in which BP, Shell and all the other serious sponsors of culture and research operate. It is how the leading institutions expect and deserve to be dealt with. In many ways, this makes the links healthier than the relationship between the institutions and governments, which can be domineering, fickle and politically driven. Just think of the current damaging relationship between the UK government and another great cultural institution: the BBC.

I do not know how often the signatories of the letter actually go to the British Museum. When they do they should look carefully at the collections. Many if not all include pieces that are themselves the products of the long and complex relationship between money, power and culture. Try, for instance, Room 40 — the gallery devoted to the treasures of medieval Europe. Read John Cherry’s brilliant book on the medieval goldsmiths. Money, power and culture have always been intertwined. The topic would make for a great exhibition at the museum. I hope BP will be allowed to be the sponsor.

2 thoughts on “The controversies around energy companies sponsoring cultural events

  1. I wonder if Nick Butler visited the Atmosphere, Exploring Climate Science gallery and the extended Climate Changing programme that was sponsored by Shell at the Science Museum. I did and was staggered by how the exhibition continually raised uncertainties about the seriousness of man-made climate change. It suggested that intensive research over coming decades was the appropriate response, not to react as if there were a global emergency. Members of the public visiting the exhibition, especially those under 18, would have been relieved to understand that oil companies like Shell could be trusted not to put their business plans before the well-being of Planet Earth. Nick Butler claims that Shell and BP (who launched Beyond Petroleum in July 2000) do not try to interfere in the intellectual or artistic judgements of the institutions that accept money. This article disagrees:

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