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BP describes itself as ‘a major supporter of the arts with a programme that spans over 35 years, during which time millions of people have engaged with BP-sponsored activities.’ The latter part of the assertion is quietly revealing. The real purpose of sponsorship is the opportunity to gain access to important audiences, either during their engagement with cultural activities that are linked to BP or through wider awareness of the associations. Oil companies claim affection for the arts because doing so establishes their position as heroes rather than parasites. But an expression of love is at odds with an act of exploitation.
BP’s association with Tate, the Royal Opera House, the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery fulfills a vital function for the company. Public promotion of the relationship sits within a set of strategies BP undertakes to maintain its own survival, profitability and deeper embeddedness in the minds of its consuming publics. BP, and oil companies like it around the world, needs these arts associations to cover up the very harmful activities that, once connected to specific galleries, undermine the role and purpose of those galleries to serve their publics. The negative image oil companies wish to mask is then placed in the gallery and has its own impacts.
BP has problems. Its business model causes harm to workers, local communities and the ecologies vulnerable to industrial oil extraction’s every risk and mishap. Within the industry climate change receives occasional mention, but otherwise it remains an unspeakable collateral of daily operations. Various practical challenges are mitigated by engineering where possible, but public relations concerns are quick to escalate, and over the past 30 years the global press and latterly social media have tracked and shared every misdemeanor with dizzying speed, exposés frequently equipped with alarming photographic evidence.
An intangible risk requires a more versatile mitigation. To survive an international onslaught of criticism and anger following a crisis, oil companies must first develop a relationship with the core values, experiences and highest held beliefs of a culture. As the threads of the sail come loose in the storm, the company must have a firm knowledge that the vessel is well anchored. When things go wrong, the company needs to maintain and reaffirm its position in the eyes – and hearts and minds – of its consuming publics. By seeding itself into our homes, sports events, workplaces, streets, galleries and museums, Big Oil convinces us of its own worthiness and centrality to our ways of life. Despite all the harm it may cause, it is still welcome in our lives. This process is called, in the PR world, a ‘social licence to operate’. The social licence is everything to the business: it is fundamental; it is built and repaired daily; and it is a kind of insurance against expected negative impacts and crises of confidence.
The arts are prized within international oil companies’ ‘social licence to operate’ strategies. Cultural institutions offer access to high-level government figures at special events and on guest lists; the association with the prestige and national pride of society’s bedrocks gives a sense of security, and the idea that the company is as fundamental to what is public and shared as the histories and ideas embodied in the art itself. Companies sponsoring the arts freely acknowledge their support is rooted in an operational need and does not imply interest in specific arts or audiences, despite marketing attempts to suggest otherwise. As oil companies are increasingly losing social acceptability, the arts become more important to their survival.
Mel Evans’ book Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts is published by Pluto Press