Can art funding ever be ethical?

Last year, doused in black paint, protesters gathered in the Tate Modern to perform a mass exorcism. But this wasn’t any new age witchcraft – they were attempting to rid the arts of the evils of BP and oil. BP are one of the largest sponsors of the arts in the UK. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey notes that they have “led the way in business support”. This year they are one of the leading sponsors for the Olympics, but their reach doesn’t stop there. The Cultural Olympiad, including the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival and the British Museum’s ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ exhibition, are all sponsored by BP.

But what’s the problem? Indeed corporations have for years sponsored the arts. It’s incredibly obvious with the Carling Academy, the O2 Arena and the Saatchi Gallery. And, you may cry, why not? Surely the arts need the money that corporations can bring. In fact, they desperately need the money since the slashes to arts funding a couple of years ago. In October 2010 it was announced that there would be a 25 percent cut to arts funding as part of the austerity measures.

The leading public funder of arts, the Arts Council, was forced to cut funding by over 10percent across the board. Some projects lost out completely, such as the theatre company London Bubble. The group now have to raise £100,000 each year to keep going. Others have had projected budgets until 2014 slashed by a half, such as the National Federation of Music Societies. To be fair to the Arts Council, many groups have only been cut by up to 10 percent, and they have offered funding to new bodies such as Streetwise Opera who use opera to help 500 homeless people a year. It’s not all doom and gloom.

However, this does show us that money is needed – especially to keep art as open and free as possible. Corporations essentially donate to art to make themselves look better. It’s not all charity, the Deputy Chairman of Coutts asserts: “This is a marketing exercise…we get reflected glory…bankers could do with any reflected glory we can get.” And herein lives the problem. If the main reason that art is sponsored is to improve a sponsors image, then the choice of art to sponsor becomes part of business.

 What business would want to support a fringe group? It would suit them better to have their name likened to Shakespeare. In the art world there are fears that for all the good that corporations do in bolstering funds for art they simultaneously hinder the long term future of art. What of the next generation? Who will support them as they grow and experiment? If sell out shows of the greats are all we support, then talent may not flourish as it has in the past.

 There are environmental objection too particularly with BP. The protesters in the Tate Modern were not so worried about the potential harm to the growth of the art world but rather the message that BP sponsorship gives. Pressure group Platform say the involvement with BP “represents a serious stain on the UK’s cultural patrimony” through the association of natural disasters. Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota responded by arguing that “the fact that they had one major incident in 2010 does not mean we should not be taking support from them.” 

His words are fair, perhaps. But the question does need answering. Why are arts bodies being forced to take money from oil in the first place? Surely there is a better way?

Sarah Shapcott



  1. Iman Fadaei

    1st June 2012 at 13:52

    Interesting – thanks for the article.

  2. Arts Development Officer

    2nd June 2012 at 19:37

    In reality, companies can select what organization to align themselves with or what to support within an organization, but they get no say so over the actual programming or art, etc.

    It is inaccurate that an organization would be better off supporting Shakespeare than a fringe group. There are innumerable types of organizations whose corporate brand does not align with Shakespeare, for example. Look at the clientele of the fringe groups and look at the lifestyle choices of those who attend to find the best fit for corporate sponsorships. Pick a hipster brand, any hipster brand, and they will jump on a fringe group before ever considering to sponsor Shakespeare! Example: vitamin water is interested in supporting a world music festival and not interested in supporting a Vermeer exhibition, even though both are the same ‘price’. The author presumes that Vermeer would be the no brainer choice for corporate support, but vitamin water’s message is more closely related to a world music festival than the canon. That’s how strategic alignment works in reality.

    Yes, organizations will assess the appropriateness of alignment. A theatre company catering to children would not take a sponsorship from playboy. Yet that would never be an issue: playboy wouldn’t be interested in sponsoring kids’ theatre.

    And not having corporate donations would prevent art, cultural organizations, etc, for all – ensuring only the wealthiest have access to things that ought instead to be in the public eye. They are doing a public service and should be applauded for that. She should instead be taking issue with the actual business of BP itself, and not with one of the few actually positive outcomes of its income!

    Development departments are working as hard as they can to acquire funding from as many contributors as possible (individuals, foundations, government agencies, corporations). It is a great challenge to convince all of the above to donate at the level required to keep an organization healthy, particularly due (in the UK) to the lack of tax breaks and no tradition or culture of individual giving having been able until recently to rely upon government support.

    I recommend the author give as generously as she can to the arts organization of her choice, and to encourage others to do so as well. The success of one organization aids in the success of all! If individuals were more generous, arts groups would not have to rely as heavily on the millions of pounds that corporations give in the UK each year.

  3. Frank Zweegers

    20th July 2012 at 13:34

    Art funding is always a sensitive and difficult subject. Can it ever be ethical? I think so, everybody will have a different view on it though….

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