I’m sometimes accused of being a naïve idealist for regularly criticising corporate sponsorship of the arts. In my view these relationship are not only antithetical to what the role of the arts in society should be but are also damaging for any sense of art as a democratic process in itself, where work is championed and celebrated for its artistic merit and social import, not because of the business priorities of those paying the heating bill. Alongside those (relatively few) people who see no problem with these relationships there are also a great many who feel that there is something wrong here, but can see no other way that the arts can survive and flourish than by entering into a Faustian pact with corporations, trading their cultural cache and public good will for the financial capital of large companies. The response I often hear is that corporate sponsorship is simply a necessity in a climate where arts budgets are constantly being cut, as if falling budgets for public projects have no relationship to the simultaneous institution of favourable tax regimes which see multinational corporations sometimes pay less tax on their revenues than an individual citizen pays on their own earnings (a tax liability which sometimes falls still further thanks to the tax wheeze of corporate cultural ‘philanthropy’). I consider it an ongoing project to change minds in both camps. Not only is separating the arts from corporate sponsorship very necessary, it’s also very possible.
The Liberate Tate campaign has been something of a test-bed in the UK for the question of whether and how the arts might be decoupled from corporate interests. The group have waged a long running campaign to reveal the terms of BP’s sponsorship of the Tate group of art galleries (which turned out to be for a rather paltry amount), and also to advocate for an end to that sponsorship. These actions have consisted of a number of highly visible protests, ranging from classic strategies of protest and disobedience like chucking oily black molasses on the steps of Tate Britain in 2010, to appropriating Tate Modern’s own rules about art donations in order to bring a 16 metre wind turbine blade into the galleries’ main space in 2012. Liberate Tate’s actions are invariably cadged in terms of art, for example described as ‘performances’ and designed to be highly visible, taking advantage of the audiences that flock particularly to Tate Modern, the same audiences of course that companies partly hope to influence through their sponsorship.
This week BP announced that it will end sponsorship of the Tate galleries in 2017, after nearly thirty years. Rather than directly credit Liberate Tate with helping to bring this about, BP blamed an ‘extremely challenging business environment’. This can I think be read as a form of coded acknowledgment of the success of the campaign, since the purpose of sponsorship is of course to do the opposite of this. As well often being an accounting wheeze, sponsorship is intended to encourage a positive public and political attitude towards a company, and to permit a favourable business climate where that companies activities will be more easily carried out, and where profit can be maximised. When these activities become the locus of protest they lose this function in spectacular style. What Liberate Tate has done so brilliantly is to both expose BP’s attempts to cynically green wash and art wash its activities by appropriating the same environmental and artistic strategies and besting the corporation at both, while at the same time as hijacking the very audience BP had hoped to sway through it’s sponsorship. If an institution like the Tate can be uncoupled from a corporate sponsor after nearly thirty years of involvement it signals the start of an open season on all such relationships.