I studied Liberate Tate at university. At the time their campaign against BP was ongoing, with no guarantee of success. We learned about their work predominantly as examples of well-known interventionist and activist art, not as examples of a campaign of activism achieving the goal it aims for. It was a joy, therefore, to see their six years of work actually end with success in 2016.
In the wake of continuing bad news, I thought it would be nice to talk today about activism that succeeded. To take some inspiration from their story, and remember that activism can create real, tangible results.
Who are Liberate Tate?
Liberate Tate initially described itself as ‘a network dedicated to taking creative disobedience against Tate until it drops its oil company funding’. The group was founded during a workshop in January 2010 on art and activism, which was commissioned by Tate. Tate curators tried to stop the workshop from making any interventions against Tate sponsors, though none had actually been planned, spurring the frustrated participants to continue collaborating beyond the workshop itself. The artist collective Liberate Tate was formed soon after to protest Tate’s BP sponsorship, which had been ongoing since 1990.
Every day Tate scrubs clean BP’s public image with the detergent of cool progressive culture. But there is nothing innovative or cutting edge about a company that knowingly feeds our addiction to fossil fuels despite a climate crisis, a company whose greed has killed twenty-one employees in just over a year, a company that continues to invest in the cancer-causing climate crimes of tar sands in Alberta, Canada.
By placing the words BP and Art together, the destructive and obsolete nature of the fossil fuel industry is masked, and crimes against the future are given a slick and stainless sheen.
Every time we step inside the museum Tate makes us complicit with these acts
The main issue was, essentially, greenwashing. With each art sponsorship, BP was able to gain public exposure and positive brand associations, cultivating a progressive image by tying its name to art and culture rather than ecocide and planetary destruction.
In 2015, an information tribunal finally forced Tate to disclose how much it had received from BP. Though BP’s 2015 profits were $6.48 billion, their Tate sponsorship numbers were surprisingly low: ranging from approximately £150,000 to £330,000 per year, and totalling at £3.8 million between 1990 and 2006. For the 2006 – 2007 fiscal year, BP’s money accounted for 0.437% of Tate’s total income. It’s clear that Tate never relied on BP’s money to survive as an institution. BP gained a lot more from their side of the deal than Tate ever did, all the while directly impacting the work of artists and public perception.
The presence of a sponsor can censor silently even if not directly – any cases of which would be surely fiercely hidden from view. Several artists note numerous cases in which they have seen BP related censorship take place… Beyond that I see the question also being about, what impact does BP have on Tate by its presence and association? What does Tate become, despite presenting itself as a politically savvy, progressive institution, by association with BP?
Liberate Tate often described themselves as critical but friendly towards Tate. They were on the same side as those who visited and loved Tate but felt uncomfortable with oil company logos everywhere, as well as being conscious of lower level staff, who carried no blame and often agreed with the protestors themselves.
One example would be us handing out letters to staff during “Time Piece.” It’s this question of pushing the uncomfortableness right up to the top so that it was the directorship that was in the difficult position of deciding whether or not to ask the police to forcibly remove us. Whereas with the floor-level staff, we had written letters to them explaining what we were doing. We were having nice chats with them. Placing that discomfort in the right place has been important.
Also, the whole last six years of what we’ve been doing has taken place against a backdrop of government cuts to arts funding. We’ve made sure that we’ve including messaging and engaged with the various groups to articulate why there’s a real need for art, for public funding, and for arts bodies like Tate to be maintained. There shouldn’t be this either-or dichotomy.
Additionally, given the largest portion of money for Tate comes through public funding, Liberate Tate wanted Tate to be both transparent and accountable to the public.
What did Liberate Tate do?
Over the span of six years Liberate Tate, often in partnership with other activist organisations, staged a series of interventionist performances and protests demanding an end to BP’s sponsorship deal with Tate. Most of these were unauthorised performances inside the Tate Modern and Tate Britain buildings.
Some of the most notable include:
License to Spill, 2010: members poured oil and feathers at Tate’s summer gala.
Sunflower, 2010: a day before a Tate Board of Trustees meeting, 50 members in black entered the Turbine Hall with BP-branded oil paint tubes. They placed the paint tubes on the floor in a circle and stamped on each one in sequence, spraying out dozens of litres of paint in a huge burst across the floor, echoing the BP ‘helios’ logo.
Human Cost, 2011: in Tate Britain, a naked man curled up on the floor as oil was poured over him. The performance took place on the first anniversary of the start of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and lasted for 87 minutes, one for each day of the spill.
The Gift, 2012: an attempt to gift Tate Modern a 16.5m long wind turbine blade, carried into the Turbine hall by over 100 members of Liberate Tate. The turbine blade was submitted to be part of Tate’s permanent collection as a gift to the nation ‘given for the benefit of the public’.
All Rise, 2013: a week-long performance at the Tate Modern. With phones strapped to their chests, performers live-streamed daily performances, where they whispered extracts from transcripts of the trial on BP’s gross negligence over the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
Parts Per Million, 2013: At the rehang of the ‘BP Walk through British Art’ display at Tate Britain, 50 Liberate Tate performers traced the chronology of the artworks counting in unison the increase in carbon in the atmosphere over each decade of the gallery.
The Reveal, 2014: performers threw £240,000 of specially designed BP/Tate money from the Members Room inside Tate Britain, down into the main entrance of ‘The BP Walk through British Art’ galleries. The performance was carried out days after Tate has been forced by the British courts to reveal that the amount of sponsorship money it received from BP was an average of £240,000 a year between 1990 and 2006.
Time Piece, 2015: a 25-hour duration piece, from high tide on 13 June (11.53 am) until high tide on 14 June (12.55 pm), where 75 members wrote passages from books on climate, art and oil on the floor of the Turbine Hall in charcoal, urging Tate to drop its BP sponsorship deal before the Paris climate summit in December.
Birthmark, 2015: members set up a tattoo parlour at Tate Britain, each performer was tattooed with the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide level the year they were born.
Successes over the years
The most obvious success is that, in 2016, Tate dropped their BP sponsorship after 26 years. This decision came as a surprise for Liberate Tate, and indicates how movements grow over time and gain momentum before they see full success. Before the landmark decision other successes achieved included:
- Over 300 artists and cultural workers signed their name to letters calling on Tate to drop BP sponsorship in the press, including Conrad Atkinson who has multiple works at Tate, and Raoul Martinez, who has been exhibited as part of the National Portrait Award.
- Over 8000 Tate members and visitors petitioned Nicholas Serota to end the sponsorship deal with BP.
- At the 2012 Tate Members’ AGM, a full hour of the session was filled with diverse voices calling for Tate to disclose more information on the sponsorship deal and heed members’ perspective on it.
- Liberate Tate regularly heard stories of staff at all levels sharing concerns with BP sponsorship at Tate.
- Liberate Tate generated a lot of media attention, pushing public conversation on the role of fossil fuels in cultural institutions.
At the time that the end of BP’s Tate sponsorship was announced, Liberate Tate had been planning their next action. The decision came as a welcome surprise and, while both sides of the deal insisted Liberate Tate had no influence on the decision, this seems unlikely to be true.
BP has had falling profits recently, but those profits are still enormous. The few hundred thousand pounds a year it was paying to Tate for all that greenwash was (probably) how much money it was spending on fresh fruit and danish pastries for executive meetings over the course of a year. Despite the ‘challenging business environment’, it still managed to award its CEO a 25 per cent pay rise to £8.3 million last year. And it says it’s still planning on sponsoring other arts institutions. So there’s clearly something else about the Tate relationship – and that something is relentless art interventions, extensive critical media coverage and public outcry.
So there are two possible scenarios here behind the PR spin of the official story. Tate decided it didn’t want to continue with all the bad publicity it was getting and the internal conflict it was provoking amongst staff, or BP decided that it was only getting negative headlines for the money it was paying. Either way – a great result!
Not only does this demonstrate how consistent activism pushed niche conversation into the mainstream and shaped public opinion, Liberate Tate’s work is also a testament to perseverance.
The press hits to our interventions there were just off the scale. So they issued that five-year deal as a kind of threat to us, saying, “Well, we’re staying around, you could never last this out.” And I think they really thought at that point that in five years time it would’ve all cooled off. That was the challenge that we took, in a way, like, “Actually, yeah, we will.” And for those five years, we slowly but surely built, grew, and escalated our tactics… I think they thought their five-year deal would ward us off, and they weren’t successful in that.
What happens now?
Well, the work isn’t over. Before Liberate Tate began the conversation on oil sponsorships was much less mainstream. Though projects such as Art Not Oil began much earlier, the activism around Tate led to a major shift in public opinion, alongside the growth of the wider divestment movement.
Art galleries like Tate have a similar prestige to universities, in terms of institutions that are supposed to be progressive and are widely admired, and that should be at the forefront in taking distance from companies that are fundamentally destructive. Addressing cultural sponsorship dovetails perfectly into university and faith groups divesting – it’s a pincer movement squeezing out oil, coal and gas everywhere possible.
And there have been more successes! Edinburgh Fringe Festival also ended their BP sponsorship in 2016, ending a 34 year relationship. The activism of BP or Not BP, alongside countless young people, saw The Royal Shakespeare Company drop BP funding in 2019, soon followed by the National Theatre ending their relationship with Shell. Further afield Statoil ended their music sponsorship programme in Norway in 2013 and the Van Gogh Museum ended an 18 year sponsorship deal with Shell in 2018, both due to pressure from groups who were inspired by Liberate Tate.
In the UK attention has now turned to BP’s continuing sponsorship of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and its BP Portrait Award, and the Royal Opera House. These institutions, especially those in positions of power, are very aware of this activism. When I was 19 I worked at The Royal Opera House during the summer of the Olympics in 2012, as an usher for the Olympic museum. This exhibition was sponsored by BP, and staff were briefed to expect protestors against BP. These actions have an impact and, as Liberate Tate shows us, when they are sustained they can create lasting change.
So here’s a reminder: activism works. Activism can achieve big things. It may feel hopeless right now, but there was no guarantee that Liberate Tate was going to succeed, protestors had to keep at it for six years first. Keep going.