Thanks to thousands of Greenpeace supporters, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate was surprised to be handed a letter at the Tate Members' AGM last Friday evening, signed by over 8000 people calling on him to drop BP as a sponsor. He also said a decision on the matter is expected in the coming weeks.
Serota was in the papers recently calling on galleries to reduce their emissions by turning down the heating. It’s great that high-profile cultural institutions like the Tate would appear to be taking the threat of climate change seriously, but there’s a lack of consistency at play here when the Tate has maintained a financial relationship for more than 20 years with BP – a company responsible for more carbon emissions than the UK itself.
The scale of the threat of climate change is such a big deal that all sectors of society need to be taking responsibility for ‘doing their bit’ – so yes, art galleries need to talk about heating gallery spaces. But the cultural sector needs to start taking responsibility for the damage it does to the climate by providing a smoke screen for some of the most destructive companies in the world.
In the last two years, art-interventionists Liberate Tate have been doing a great job of bringing this tension to the surface through a series of high impact and creative direct action performances in gallery spaces that have propelled the issue into the mainstream. If you accept the need to draw some sort of line about what is and isn’t ethically acceptable, then we need to renegotiate exactly where those lines are in light of the role that oil companies are playing in dragging us to the edge of climate catastrophe.
There’s a growing sense in the cultural sector of this being the case. When members of Platform and Liberate Tate attended the Tate Members’ AGM last Friday, we knew there were a lot of people behind us, pushing for change on this issue. Serota stated during the meeting that the decision lay with the Tate trustees, but he spoke to us to say that there were various discussions taking place which would lead to a decision soon – “in a matter of weeks, not months.”
The letter with over 8,000 signatures came just at the right moment, and this week Tate trustees, as well as numerous influential voices in the art world, will receive a copy of our new publication that sets out some parameters on the issue. Not If But When: Culture Beyond Oil features art that people have made in response to oil companies and their impacts, as well as a series of articles examining the issues in greater detail. German artist Ruppe Koselleck individually daubed a motif on every single copy of the limited edition, using tar balls that washed up on the Gulf of Mexico coastline after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Like the title of the publication states, it’s not a question of if, but when oil sponsorship becomes socially unacceptable, in the same way that tobacco sponsorship did a few decades back. As Raoul Martinez - an artist who has exhibited in the BP-sponsored National Portrait Award - writes in the book:
...the acquiescence of artists to corporate interests is a far more significant statement than anything that might be conveyed by their art. Our world is our biggest canvas, and our choices our most important brushstrokes.
You can still sign the letter, which could reach the tens of thousands in the coming months, and please share it with other people who you think might be interested. You can also buy the publication from Unbound, the Live Art Development Agency’s online bookshop.
Mel Evans is a member of Platform