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Seven reflections on Liberating Tate

As BP's sponsorship of the Tate ends, Kevin Smith of Liberate Tate looks back at the successful campaign to get the oil firm's dirty money out of the art gallery

March 19, 2016
10 min read

After six years of Liberate Tate spilling oil, squirting paint tubes, flapping huge squares of cloth, counting carbon levels with our voices, learning how to give tattoos, installing giant wind turbine blades and melting Arctic ice, we learned last week that the Tate-BP relationship was over. Here’s some of what we learned from our efforts to push big oil out of the arts.

1) This was about Tate, but much more about BP

Our work on Tate is about trying to kick some of the supporting legs out from underneath BP’s chair – taking a relationship that nurtures and sustains BP and transforming it into one that was actively damaging for the company.

The oil firm takes great pains to cultivate these long-standing sponsorship arrangements as part of developing its ‘social licence to operate.’ This is an industry terms for the conditions that companies need to carry out their practices regardless of the social or environmental consequences.

BP’s business model explicitly relies on smashing through safe limitations on the extent of climate change, yet it still isn’t widely regarded as a corporate pariah. Our work in the last six years has been about embodying and amplifying that central fact. As anyone who’s ever confronted board members at the company’s AGM can attest, BP is quite slick at absorbing head-on criticism and quite comfortable with the fact that it is trashing the planet.

Liberate-Tate_The-Gift_2012_Photo_Martin-LeSanto-SmithPhoto: Martin LeSanto Smith

2) It’s obviously not true that BP ended it because of the ‘challenging business environment’

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!

Liberate-Tate_Human-Cost_2011_Photo_Amy-Scaife_2Photo: Amy Scaife

3) Ending oil sponsorship is a natural bedfellow to the divestment movement

While we’ve been busy trying to push Tate to drop BP, the divestment movement has blown up in different countries around the world. Addressing fossil fuel sponsorship employs an identical logic – that stigmatising oil companies is a way of undermining the power base from which they operate.

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.

Liberate-Tate_HumanCost_2011_Photo_Amy-ScaifePhoto: Amy Scaife

4) It’s great that that the Tate/BP link is broken, but that doesn’t mean everything is great at Tate

The identity of Liberate Tate has been useful for us to position ourselves as critical but fundamentally friendly towards Tate. We wanted to be on the same side as all the many people who visited and loved Tate, but who felt uncomfortable with having oil company logos popping up all over. So we’re ecstatic that BP has been pushed out of Tate, but it would be naive to ignore all sorts of other unaddressed issues at Tate.

For starters, we’d like to see Tate join other arts institutions in adopting a fundraising policy that explicitly excludes oil money. But there are also structural issues around race and class, there’s the fact that Tate has such a disproportionate say and influence in the arts ecosystem, there’s a variety of labour issues that the PCS union has been raising, and there are issues about the ethics and impacts of other sponsors. It was recently announced that Uniqlo is a new Tate sponsor – a clothing company that has been accused of severely mistreating workers.

And given that by far the largest chunk of money for Tate comes from taxpayers, public bodies like Tate should be transparent and accountable. It’s ridiculous that Tate fought so hard at the Information Tribunal to prevent the public from knowing how much money it was getting from BP. The fact that former BP CEO John Browne is sitting for another round as chair of Tate trustees sends out a message that Tate is far more interested in cosying up to the corporate sector than it is in being responsive to the general public.

Liberate-Tate_HIdden-Figures_2014_Photo_Martin-LeSanto-SmithPhoto: Martin LeSanto Smith

5) Art galleries and cultural institutions are really useful points of intervention

Visitors to these spaces enter with a curious and inquiring mindset, cultivating an atmosphere made for bold and challenging interventions. And, architecturally speaking, we’ve explored every nook and cranny of Tate spaces to make our work dramatically site-specific. The elegant atrium of Tate Britain surrounded by arches was perfect for us to slowly toss specially designed bank notes to flutter down to the entry hall below as part of ‘The Reveal’. It felt like Tate was a public space that was ideal for reclaiming and, for whatever reason, we were able to walk away from acts that could have been very ‘arrestable’ in other circumstances.

It’s also worth considering that from a sponsorship point of view, controversial companies pay money to have access to the ‘special publics’ – influential figures in the cultural sector, government, media and business – that these institutions attract. When you make interventions in these spaces, you’re also engaging in dialogue with that sector, and for a lot less money. And, if you want to conduct a corporate campaign, the sponsorship relationship provides all manner of opportunities to very publicly expose dirty laundry.

Liberate-Tate_Time-Piece_-2015_Photo_Martin-LeSanto-SmithPhoto: Martin LeSanto Smith

6) You don’t have to choose between art as a tool, and art for art’s sake

Art activism is sometimes sneered at by artists for being too crude and didactic, or for just committing the cardinal sin of being unfashionably socially engaged. Or it can be disrespected by activists for not being confrontational enough, or for being too obtuse in the way it approaches issues. Liberate Tate’s practice evolved so that everything was always intentioned with an aim to affect change, but everything was conceived, rehearsed and executed as live art.

Sometimes that involved some of us consciously stepping back from activist identities and allowing ideas to breathe and mutate before we felt they could be performed. Our 25 hour durational performance of ‘Time Piece’, which involved transcribing passages from books on climate, art and oil in charcoal on the floor of the Turbine Hall, started out as an entirely separate idea before it transformed into the eventual piece, with not one of the original features still in place.

We wanted to create work that casual gallery-goers would feel pleased to stumble upon and pieces that many of the staff working in Tate would feel professionally pleased to have hosted, despite the edicts on BP sponsorship from on high.

Liberate-Tate_License-to-Spill_Photo-Immo-KlinkPhoto: Immo Klink

7) The issue of oil sponsorship of culture was pretty niche when we started six years ago, and now it’s a much bigger conversation

When Liberate Tate really got going, BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster was still pumping countless gallons of crude oil out into the Gulf of Mexico. As oil gushed in the Gulf, at Tate’s summer party celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship the good and great of the art world were re-routed into the building to avoid the gallons of an oil-like substance that was poured all over the entrance. Before 2010 it was only the climate activist group Rising Tide who had carried out a series of protests under the banner of Art Not Oil, while Platform had articulated analysis that had promoted the concept of tackling oil companies and the social licence to operate.

Six years later, in the UK other groups like BP or Not BP and Shell Out Sounds have popped up to pressure other institutions like the British Museum, while big NGOs like Greenpeace have recognized the value of undermining the social licence to operate in campaigns like the successful attempt to disrupt the relationship between Shell and Lego.

Meanwhile, internationally, a fossil-free culture movement is emerging. In Norway a group of artists are making waves over Statoil’s cultural sponsorship programme, and in the US the Natural History Museum collective have been touring an exhibition that prompted the notorious billionaire climate denier David Koch to step down from the board of the Museum of Natural History. In Australia, artists and activists are saying that the integrity of the Darwin festival is being undermined by the sponsorship of a company that wants to frack in the Northern Territory. And in the week following Tate’s announcement, a Fossil Free Culture group popped up in the Netherlands, where Shell is heavily invested in many of the prominent museums. This has become much bigger than just BP and Tate: it’s about society’s rapidly changing attitude towards fossil fuels.

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