Are oil companies losing their influence on the arts?

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Are oil companies losing their influence on the arts?

Protests against financial support from oil companies are growing. Some arts institutions receive money from big oil companies and this need to change. Danny Chivers reports.


Wit the campaign for climate justice I have gone to some strange places in the last few years. I’ve invaded a theatre stage and covered myself with fake oil while I spoke from Shakespeare. I have sung in a pop-up musical to protest against the press reporting a new art exhibition; and taken a big sea-monster into the British Museum.

This protest theatre is the work of our activist theatre group BP or not BP?. It aims to challenge oil-company support of big British arts institutions. It’s part of a growing movement for a fossil-free culture. It is working to stop the oil industry looking good by giving cultural financial support.

Imagine you’re a fossil-fuel company. To help profits, you have spent many years arguing against environmental laws, blocking clean-energy projects, giving wrong information about climate change, and working with repressive countries. Your history is connected to violence and colonialism, and your business plan would push the world beyond 1.5 degrees of warming.

With this terrible record, and with all the protests, it can be difficult to get enough public support to continue business as usual. That’s where giving financial support to museums, theatres, and public events is useful.

And it seems to work well. Market researchers found that giving financial support to the 2012 Olympics gave BP a better public image. An oil company can buy a year of putting its name on an art gallery for the price of a couple of TV adverts. In recent years, BP has supported British Museum exhibitions with the Mexican, Egyptian, and Russian governments, and gave it connections with officials just as the company was planning new big oil and gas projects.

Stop using company names

Protests against these dirty business deals is growing. In the last few years London’s Tate galleries ended their sponsorship deal with BP after six years of anti-oil protests by art collective Liberate Tate, the campaign group Platform, and others. BP or not BP? took BP out of the Edinburgh International Festival. The fossil-fuel billionaire David Koch left the board of New York’s American Museum of Natural History after a protest by scientists and museum workers. The Right Side of History campaign took the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) out of the Canadian Museum of History.

In 2018, artists from Fossil Free Culture Netherlands ended Shell’s support of three big Dutch museums, including the Van Gogh Museum. London’s National Gallery said goodbye to Shell, and big fossil-fuel supporter Barclays was dropped as a sponsor of a Neil Young concert after the artist and many of his fans protested.

Libérons le Louvre creates protest art in Paris against the art museum’s use of Total’s name. The New Orleans Fossil Free Fest uses art, music, and film to challenge Shell’s support of the city’s Jazz Festival.

In December 2018, hundreds of people went to the British Museum for an unofficial ‘Stolen Goods Tour’. They heard indigenous and Iraqi speakers ask for the return of objects stolen during colonial rule. The objects had been on display with oil-company names. Western museums have much work to do because of their colonial past. And that includes ending working with the neocolonial companies like BP and Shell.

As the climate problem continues, the arts institutions supported by oil companies, for example, the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company and the Netherlands’ Concertgebouw, need to change. As the #FossilFreeCulture movement is planning more protests, we look forward to other oil sponsorships ending in 2019…


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)