The Pulitzer-prize winning composer John Luther Adams once wrote that ‘art expresses our belief that there will be a future for humanity’. The question is, can that belief still stand when art is forced to share the stage with a company that puts the future at risk? In the 14th consecutive hottest month on record, the Royal Opera House, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Shakespeare Company have done exactly that by deciding to renew their sponsorship deals with BP for a further five years. If these deals go ahead as planned, it means that these iconic arts institutions will be promoting BP well into the 2020s, at a time when society should be cutting its ties to fossil fuels.
When the new sponsorship deals were announced, Royal Opera House director Alex Beard didn’t mention BP’s dodgy ethics or its role in driving climate change. Instead he focused on BP’s supposed ‘long-term support’ for arts and culture. But if the money from BP’s last deal were divided equally between the four cultural institutions it sponsored, then that money would have covered just 0.5% of the Royal Opera House budget. And now, BP has cut the amount it is paying in sponsorship by 25%. It will now amount to, on average, just £375,000 per institution per year, and BP has blamed this cutback on the low oil price. It’s a particularly weak argument, as just months ago it gave its CEO, Bob Dudley, a 20% pay rise of £14m.
BP is a particularly out-of-place partner for the Royal Opera House as it has co-hosted the ‘Culture Change’ programme on sustainability, its director recently signed up to the ‘Creative Climate Coalition’ – pledging to ‘speak out and up’ on climate issues – and he added his name to a letter calling for a strong deal at the UN Climate Conference in Paris. Also, during last year’s season of BP-sponsored ‘Big Screens’, 75 composers and music academics, including John Luther Adams, Simon Holt and Paul Griffiths, called on the Royal Opera House to cut its ties to BP. In a letter to the Guardian, they highlighted how ‘BP’s core business activities and political lobbying are actively pushing us towards a future with a global temperature increase well in excess of 2C.’
A report recently published by the campaign group, Art Not Oil, has also revealed how BP has used its arts sponsorships to further its strategic business plans in an explicit way, from networking with representatives of rights abusing governments to interfering in decisions about programming and content. It was uncomfortable reading both for BP and the institutions it sponsors. Since then, BP’s group regional vice-president Peter Mather has conceded that ‘When there is an option, naturally we are going to try to match a particular exhibition with somewhere we have an interest.’
At a time when oil sponsorship of the arts is so controversial, it was particularly out of touch for the BBC to allow BP to have the back cover of this year’s official Proms Guide to advertise its sponsorship deals. When asked to comment directly, the BBC Proms team gave little insight: ‘The advertisements included in the Proms Guide and concert programmes are within BBC guidelines and the revenue raised supports the BBC Proms festival.’ The advert shows a picture of a young girl in Tate Britain gazing up at a painting in awe, overlaid with the letters ‘OMG’ and a BP logo. Bizarrely, it promotes BP’s sponsorship of Tate, a 26-year deal that will be dropped next year following sustained protests from arts activists.
In those spaces where the BBC has judged that commercial interests may creep in, the taxpayer should feel that there is a form of accountability and ethical scrutiny in place. There is a significant difference between an advert for a music performance college and an oil company that has faced record criminal fines after being found grossly negligent in relation to one of the world’s largest and most damaging oil spills.
Saying no to BP shouldn’t be difficult as classical music has successfully cut its ties to big oil in the past. In 2014, Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre’s Shell Classic International concert series came to an end following a campaign of choral protests at the Royal Festival Hall and criticism from respected artists and performers. The concert series has continued under a new name but the standard of performers and programmes has remained high. And just a few months ago, it was announced that BP’s 34-year sponsorship of Edinburgh International Festival would come to an end after top performers spoke out during last year’s festival.
Like the National Portrait Gallery or the British Museum, the BBC made an ethical choice in taking BP’s money, a decision that it should be accountable to. And meanwhile, the campaign against BP’s sponsorship of the arts isn’t going away. Just days after the new BP sponsorship deals were announced, more than 200 artists, scientists and campaigners signed a letter in the Times calling for them to be dropped, with composers Matthew Herbert and Maja Ratkje among them. With protests set to escalate and BP becoming more controversial as the impacts of climate change are felt, it’s time the Royal Opera House – and the BBC – stopped giving BP the cover it so desperately needs to keep drilling.