OMG. For the second year running, those have been the letters splashed across the back cover of the BBC Proms Official Guide. The acronym OMG (‘Oh my God!’) accompanies a picture of a young girl in Tate Britain gazing up at a painting in awe. The real surprise though is that this image – on the official guide for a publicly funded concert series – is an advert for BP. But it’s not an advert for oil or gas, simply an opportunity for BP to promote its arts sponsorships.
It’s a bizarre advert for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Proms have long been heralded as a project underpinned by public funding and not seen as a profit-making exercise. The price of £5 for a standing ticket remained set for a decade, only just going up to £6 this year. So when the likes of Top Gear, Strictly Come Dancing or the content of the Proms concerts themselves are untouched by commercial interests, why are the printed programmes and official guides an exception?
A Freedom of Information request made to the BBC asking for the details surrounding the BP advert was rejected. The BBC has its own special exemption and can withhold information that is held ‘for the purposes of art, journalism or literature’. It feels like an odd justification given that advertising is primarily for the purposes of generating income. 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 support the BBC Proms festival.’
Given the controversy around BP and its arts sponsorships, some sense of deeper ethical scrutiny might have been expected. In those spaces where the BBC has judged that commercial interests may creep in, the taxpayer needs to feel that there is a form of accountability. There is a significant difference between an advert for a music performance college for example, and an oil company that has faced record criminal fines and was found grossly negligent in relation to one of the world’s largest and most damaging oil spills.
It is also an unusual advert because BP’s sponsorship of Tate Britain will be coming to an end in 2017 after 26 years, following years of protest, legal proceedings and controversy. And tonight is the third in the Royal Opera House’s annual set of BP Big Screens, one of the oil giant’s more explicit attempts to flaunt its supposed ‘generosity’ for the UK arts sector. BP pursues big brand exposure, on screens showing Royal Opera House performances in Trafalgar Square and on posters for the British Museum’s new ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition. But in reality, its payments to cultural institutions such as Tate or the British Museum make up less than 1% of the institutions’ overall budgets. It’s the equivalent of loose change for BP.
Last year, 75 composers and music academics, including John Luther Adams, Simon Holt and Paul Griffiths, called upon the Royal Opera House to cut its ties to BP in a letter to the Guardian. Covent Garden, like the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, is currently considering whether to renew its deal with BP. Along with the Tate, the four institutions had been part of a five-year block sponsorship deal signed in the aftermath of BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But the company seems a particularly out-of-place partner for the Royal Opera House as it has co-hosted the Culture Change programme on sustainability, its director Alex Beard recently signed up to the Creative Climate Coalition – pledging to ‘speak out and up’ – and last year he added his name to a letter calling for a strong deal on climate change at the UN Paris Climate Conference.
A report recently published by the campaign group Art Not Oil revealed how BP has used its arts sponsorships to further its strategic business plans in an explicit way, from networking with representatives from rights abusing governments to shaping security protocols at times when campaigners have sought to legitimately scrutinise BP’s ethics. It was uncomfortable reading for BP and the institutions it sponsors. Subsequently, 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’.
If BP’s arts sponsorships are a tool for shoring up its influence, securing valuable networking opportunities and cleaning up its brand, then allowing BP to advertise its arts deals at the Proms is a clear ethical choice. BP’s business plan is not consistent with climate science – we need to leave around 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground to be in with any chance of leaving future generations with a stable climate. Meanwhile, BP is out looking for more places to drill, from Mexico to Australia.
But classical music has 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 musical protests and criticism from respected artists and performers. The concert series has continued under a new name but the status of performers and standard of programmes has remained high.
Like the National Portrait Gallery or the British Museum, the BBC has made an ethical choice in taking BP’s money. Given the growing evidence about how BP uses its arts sponsorships, the BBC has knowingly lent itself to the company’s business plan, and in a space that should be free of commercial interests and conflicts. This should be the last year that the BBC Proms gives BP the cover the company so desperately needs.
Dr Chris Garrard is a composer, campaigner and a member of the Art Not Oil coalition. He was the lead author of Art Not Oil’s report into BP’s arts sponsorship, BP’s Cultural Sponsorship – A Corrupting Influence.