A Difficult Relationship


This week, The Guardian published a letter to the new director of the British Museum- Hartwig Fischer- calling on him to end the partnership with BP. John McDonnell, Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Klein are among the signatories. The letter follows BP announcing the end of its 26 year relationship with the Tate, citing the current “challenging business environment”. But of course the devoted protesters of Liberate Tate claimed victory.


There is a passionate movement to strip that BP logo from every admirable institution that it’s attached to (The National Gallery and Royal Opera House also included) and those institutions have found that little yellow and green logo to be an oily albatross around their necks. But increasingly, many are of the arguably more pragmatic view that the benefit of enormous donations outweighs the dubious ethical decision. Most arts institutions are in constant need of financial support, saddled by the government’s insistence to continually slice arts funding. But, interestingly, last year when the Tate was forced by an information tribunal to finally reveal details of its sponsorship activities, it was revealed that over 17 years BP donated £3.8 million. Not quite the indispensable relationship/sum that we were lead to believe, the protesters growled. It didn’t seem good enough.

The reality is, where else would cultural institutions get that kind of money from today? Who else would step up? Museums, galleries and charities alike have to rely on ferocious fundraising and perhaps unsavoury sponsorship relationships to keep afloat and maintain ambition. But that said, the damage caused to the Tate’s reputation by this partnership should have come at a far higher price: BP should have given more. The Tate should have demanded more.


Because, make no mistake, BP needed the Tate too. Companies with poor public reputations have long sought alignment with respected brands. It may be rarely believable, often a cynical PR strategy, but it’s a partnership that can generate some undeniably important output: fantastic temporary exhibitions, developing the collection and increasing access to significant works. Such companies improve their image by attaching their logo and their funds to something spectacular- they want that prestige.


Ceasing partnership with BP would lose the museum money for their crucial cultural yield and, unfortunately for those who protest, makes no difference to BP. Previous director of The British Museum, Neil MacGregor, seems to have the most realistic stance:
“What would you want companies to do with their profits? Do you want them to spend them in a way that benefits the public or not?”
Yes, Neil, I do. Squeeze them for every penny possible, and make sure it’s a bloody good exhibition.