A guest blog by Kevin Smith of Platform.
At the end of last year, a whole bunch of Greenpeace supporters signed a petition calling on Nick Serota to "take the necessary steps to disengage from BP as a sponsor, and stop allowing Tate to be used to deflect attention away from the devastating impacts that BP has around the world.”
We had an amazing response – more than 8,000 Tate members and visitors put their names to it, and we presented it to an open-mouthed Serota at the Tate Members AGM. It’s no wonder he was stunned - we’ve since found out through a Freedom of Information request that this has been the single biggest intervention from the public on any issue at the Tate in the twenty years that they’ve been taking money from BP.
Tate-head Serota made all sorts of promising noises about taking the matter up with the trustees, and for a moment, with headlines like “Tate may not renew BP sponsorship deal after environmental protests” it all looked like Tate was going to come out swinging on the side of the climate.
And then in December, BP announced a new £10 million pound deal over five years with Tate and three other cultural institutions.
This was a bit disappointing for everyone concerned - and most disappointing for Tate to be swimming against the tide of increasingly climate-conscious gallery goers. There’s two reasons though why the way in which this new sponsorship deal was announced and reported on gives hope for an eventual success in pushing dirty oil out of arts institutions.
Firstly, the deal was the subject of a great deal of pomp and circumstance. They announced it in the British Museum with a coterie of select journalists, and with the London Sinfonietta playing away in the background. Previously, these sponsorship announcements have just been backroom deals that haven’t been announced quite so dramatically. It felt like both BP and the arts institutions had to make a dramatic performance out of it as there were feeling defensive about the issue - it was suddenly a thorny subject.
And the way that the deal was reported backs this up too - in almost all of the press, it was written that this was a ‘controversial’ deal that had been made ‘despite environmental protests’. It felt like a significant corner had been turned in this becoming a solidly contested issue in public eye, rather than something that just happens without causing any grief to anyone. And that’s a really solid basis on which to keep ramping up the pressure.
So, thanks to everyone who took the time to sign the petition - it may not have stopped them this time round, but it was a really important part of the story in showing how widespread public opposition was at a really crucial time.
There’s plenty more planned in the pipeline, but in the meantime, we also wanted to invite everyone to take part in the Tate à Tate audio tour that was launched in March. This is a three part sound artwork that has been created in response to BP’s sponsorship of Tate. It’s like a guerrilla hijacking of the Tate soundscape. You download the MP3s of the website, load them up on your smartphone or MP3 player, and then listen to them in Tate Britain, Tate Modern and the boat journey in between the two. Art Monthly called it “a portable piece of cultural activism for the modern age” with “the potential to reach, engage and politicise a much wider audience,” while Don’t Panic described it as “Thomas Crown Affair meets eco-warrior sabotage in audio hijinx.”
Even if you’re not based in London, the audio tours have been designed so that you can still listen to them in the comfort of your own home. And each of the three pieces are conceptually quite different – one is more lyrical and poetic, one more straight forward audio documentary style, and one more surreal and humorous – so there’s something for everyone. This is as much a campaign tool as it is a piece of public art, so please have a pop at the tour yourself, and let your friends know who might be interested too.
Finally, tonight in London sees the launch of the Greenwash Gold 2012 campaign at the Amnesty Human Rights Centre. If you drop by at 7, you can hear speakers from the Gulf of Mexico and Canada talking about the devastating impacts that BP have had on their communities. And if you can’t make it to the event, you can still go to www.greenwashgold.org and vote for BP as the worst Olympic sponsor.