Many of us already know the statistic: just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions. Many are names we recognise, such as BP, Shell and Statoil. But not only are these companies extreme polluters, they’re also extremely adept at using the arts to greenwash their images and further the business interests of the fossil fuel industry. Read on to find out why there is no room for polluters to sponsor arts and culture institutions.
The problems with fossil fuel companies
Major companies, like BP and Shell, try to frame themselves as neutral: they simply provide energy, create jobs and boost the economy. They contribute to the societies they operate within, only extracting fossil fuels because the market demands it. They set ‘net zero’ goals and claim to take the climate crisis seriously, all the while pushing for unsustainable levels of extraction.
Drilling and transporting oil and gas is extremely high risk, with consequences ranging from toxic fires, oil spills and deaths that can impact communities and ecosystems for generations. These risks are amplified by companies cutting corners in attempts to save time and money, which can result in massive spills and environmental disasters. Some key examples include the record-breaking Gulf of Mexico spill (also known as Deepwater Horizon), where BP was found guilty of gross negligence, and Shell’s pollution in the Niger Delta, which still harms over 40,000 people.
Despite this, corporations are still seeking extraction of fossil fuels that we can’t burn if we want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. As easy-to-reach reserves run out, they’re also exploring more extreme methods of extraction including fracking, digging up the tar sands in Canada and drilling in the Arctic. These methods are highly carbon-intensive and much more high-risk, harming local communities and causing mass ecological damage.
- BP’s future projects include more ultra-deepwater drilling for vast reserves of oil.
- Shell has made an unrealistic plan to keep drilling but rely on technologies that don’t yet exist to somehow cancel out its emissions.
- Equinor plans to drill new oil wells in the Arctic, which has only become possible because of rising temperatures and melting ice.
The industry also spends vast amounts on political lobbying to ensure policymakers won’t impede business, often derailing plans that would help society transition to renewable energy sources. In 2015 BP was identified as Europe’s biggest and ‘fiercest corporate opponent of action on climate change’; BP employees have made donations to US politicians who deny the existence of climate change; and BP, Shell and Statoil/Equinor are all members of the American Petroleum Institute, a powerful lobby group involved in actively spreading denial and opposing climate laws.
The industry is notoriously corrupt, including:
- In 2015, BP received £210 million more from UK taxpayers than the company paid in taxes.
- Shell paid no UK corporation tax in 2014, despite making global profits of £19.87bn.
- In 2014, Statoil was found guilty of bribery and there have been more questions about dubious payments since.
- The UK government gave £4 billion in public money to North Sea oil and gas companies from 2016 – 2020.
Finally, while these companies publicly sign up to human rights agreements, a 2017 report found BP’s close relationships with a number of governments that violate human rights. Many profitable oil and gas reserves can be found in countries with repressive regimes and poor environmental protections, giving companies the freedom to silence opposition and ignore local communities.
Oil companies will often form close, long-term partnerships with dictators and repressive rulers, as well as paying large amounts to military or armed groups to protect operations. BP maintains close relationships with Azerbaijan, Egypt, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Colombia, Angola and Algeria.
Photo by Diana More
- In Egypt, BP has made increasingly lucrative deals with every successive regime, while new repressive laws have silenced protest against new drilling projects in the country.
- Shell paid millions to the military and other armed groups in Nigeria to make sure its operations go unchallenged, leading to the murder of the Ogoni Nine in 1995.
- Statoil/Equinor has formed a close partnership with Azerbaijan’s state oil company, a country where freedom of expression is hampered by a repressive regime.
Arts & greenwashing
So what has art and culture got to do with it? For years the fossil fuel industry has worked to greenwash its image. Sponsorship of arts and cultural institutions has been a key part of this strategy. By forming partnerships with museums and art galleries they brand themselves as benevolent philanthropists, investing in arts and culture, rather than their deadly legacy of drilling and climate breakdown.
Sponsorship deals – whether they are with museums, theatres or sports events – are one of the cheapest and most effective ways for oil and gas companies to boost their brands.
Events and exhibitions essentially become another form of advertising, usually at a very small price.
While the scale of BP’s ‘brandwashing’ in our publicly funded museums and galleries is significant, the scale of its investment is not, comprising less than 1% of the annual income of the British Museum, Royal Opera House and Tate. The amount given to the British Museum annually is equivalent to the profit made by the company every two hours
In particular, BP sponsored a range of cultural institutions in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon scandal in 2010, which landed the company with the biggest criminal and environmental fines in US history. By 2012, BP coordinated sponsorship deals – including Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Portrait Gallery – to run in parallel for the following five years. Beyond greenwashing its image, these deals also gave BP further strategic tools to continue pursuing fossil fuel extraction.
BP’s association with well-known institutions not only contributed to its social license to operate by framing it as a responsible corporate citizen, it also provided much more insidious benefits too.
Beyond image maintenance, sponsoring specific events and exhibitions gives corporations the chance to mingle with politicians at events such as openings and private dinners, cultivating strategic relationships that benefit the fossil fuel industry.
- As BP was attempting to drill in the Great Australian Bight, it sponsored the museum’s Indigenous Australia exhibition and attended meetings at the Australian High Commission.
- As BP prepared to bid on drilling licenses off the coast of Mexico, it sponsored a Mexico-themed festival where staff from BP attended a VIP reception with the Mexican ambassador and government ministers in the run-up to oil lease auctions. The British Museum requested the Mexican Embassy delete the invitation list for one such VIP reception with BP.
- BP sought to use its sponsorship relationships to enhance its own lobbying ahead of the 2015 General Election.
- BP has established high-level relationships at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), with regular private meetings and issuing personal invitations from BP’s CEO to the Secretary of State to private launch events.
BP’s Vice President has also admitted that:
‘When there is an option, naturally we are going to try to match a particular exhibition with somewhere we have an interest.’
BP frames its sponsorship of the British Museum and other institutions as philanthropy. However, it has been strategic and selective in its support, flexibly making funding available at short notice when programming can be particularly useful. For example, while the five-year deals are a fixed arrangement, its sponsorship for the Mexico-themed festival was additional to pre-existing sponsorship arrangements. This festival took place in October – November 2015, allowing a VIP reception with Mexican politicians the month before bidding began in Mexico for 10 deepwater and ultra-deepwater oil and gas in December 2015.
Exhibition content & curatorial control
Despite providing a tiny portion of overall funding for its ‘cultural partners’, BP has managed to wield influence over the content of events and exhibitions, compromising the notion of an independent cultural sector. FOI requests have found emails showing that BP staff have often been given chances to input into, sign-off and approve decisions related to programming and content.
Far from being a ‘no strings attached’ funder, BP’s behaviour is described by a member of British Museum staff, speaking exclusively for this report, as ‘extremely demanding of the Museum – bullying, I would say.’
This includes getting final approval on curatorial decisions in the British Museum’s Indigenous Australia exhibition, which is extremely troubling.
…It appears from this communication that BP was given decision-making authority over what painting would be put on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition at the museum. If BP had had an objection, what would the British Museum have done, having sought their approval? In response to our FOI request, the British Museum also confirmed that the majority of Aboriginal communities consulted during the planning of the exhibition were not informed that BP would be the sponsor.
The impacts of extractive industries and climate change on Aboriginal communities are well documented, and at the time, BP was in the process of pushing through controversial plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight, plans that have been opposed by Mirning Traditional Owner, Bunna Lawrie, among many others. Given all this, the decision not to consult – or even inform – the majority of Indigenous communities whose objects were featured in the exhibition that BP would be its sponsor, but to seek BP’s approval for a particular acquisition, could be seen as insensitive, unethical and reflecting a cognitive dissonance on the part of the museum over its partnership with BP.
BP staff have also been part of judging panels on high-profile awards such as the Portrait award, giving BP both direct influence over the shortlist and winners, and the chance to censor subject matter they dislike. As one fellow judge noted:
BP’s representative, Des Violaris, thought too much in terms of portraits that might make good advertisements… The National Portrait Gallery’s director begged us to let Miss Violaris have her way, arguing that as the sponsor supplies the cash, the sponsor must be allowed the whip hand.
Dealing with opposition
While protest is a necessary part of freedom of expression, BP doesn’t seem to agree when it comes to sponsorships. It has been found that:
- BP held a meeting at its London Offices between its security team and Heads of Security and corporate partnership managers from each of its sponsored institutions, in order to discuss ‘suggested measures’ for the management of legitimate protest.
- BP has hosted ‘Counter-Terrorism Training’ at its London Offices for personnel from the cultural institutions it sponsors.
- BP has regularly been in a position to influence institutional security procedures, pass on intelligence/surveillance material and ensure those with legitimate concerns about BP’s business practices are closely monitored.
It’s difficult to understand why security personnel at publicly-funded cultural institutions are allowed to share anti-protest measures with a corporate sponsor and oil company, as this raises questions over whose interests these security are really designed to protect.
Additionally, opinion polls in 2016 not only found that 50% of Londoners wanted the British Museum to drop BP sponsorship, but 62% of the British Museum’s own staff think its BP sponsorship deal is ‘unethical’. It’s worrying to think about the influence that BP could wield against individual staff members who don’t align with their greenwashing strategy. When the PCS Union, which represents multiple museum and gallery workers, voted to support the campaign against oil sponsorship in 2015, BP immediately contacted its cultural partners to ask if any employees were represented by this union. For corporate sponsors to potentially wield influence over ordinary jobs is deeply concerning.
Photo by Guy Reece
These ethical questions are further heightened when one looks at BP’s history of activist surveillance.
The campaign group BP or not BP? were told by security personnel at the British Museum during a performance protest that BP had informed the museum’s security team when they would be coming and that the group would be ‘wearing black’. Based on the specific information the museum had and did not have, the group concluded that a member of BP staff or a contracted surveillance consultant had infiltrated one of their mailing lists and was gathering information on the group’s activity.
This is backed up by a document released by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which shows BP’s regular monitoring of the group’s social media channels.
In 2021 it was also revealed that BP hired a private intelligence firm, set up by a former MI6 agent, to follow campaigners and share information with institutions such as the British Museum. The report from Open Democracy called it a shocking web of surveillance.
The good news is that this hasn’t stopped campaigners. Organisations such as the Tate, Edinburgh Fringe, The Royal Shakespeare Company, The National Theatre and the Van Gogh Museum have all ended major fossil fuel sponsorships in recent years. Just last week, at COP26, BP or Not BP? joined forces with Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir to challenge BP’s partnership with the Scottish ballet (yes, the dancer pictured above is me). Less than two hours later, the Scottish Ballet announced they were reviewing all partnerships.
It’s clear that these companies are nearing their end, despite desperate attempts to greenwash and aggressively lobby their way into continued relevance. They have no place within the arts and culture sector, and soon they will have no place among wider society either. It’s time institutions like the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the Scottish Ballet got on board.