What Dirty Secrets Is the Tate Museum Trying to Hide?

COVER Gideon Mendels Drowning World photographs installed in Tate Modern as part of Deadline Festival

If you want to see British art, you must visit the Tate—either the Tate Britain (home to classic art) or Tate Modern (home of modern and contemporary art).  To get there, unfortunately, you probably used some conveyance fueled by BP, aka British Petroleum.  For nearly 30 years, BP’s sponsored the Tate, including a 5-year deal dating back to 2011 in which the oil giant pumped 10 million pounds (approximately $14 million USD) into Tate Britain, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House.  Thanks to the protests of Platform and other organizations, BP announced it would break off all financial ties to the Tate.  Now activists want to know what influence that oil money bought in the past so they can better fight such influence in the future, but they have to take Tate to court to find out.  What dirty secrets is this museum trying to hide?


Video: On March 19, 2016, Liberate Tate celebrated the end of the Tate and BP relationship with a party in Tate Turbine Hall. As part of the celebration, they released black confetti from the ceiling.


After years of protests and performance art pieces, Liberate Tate could finally celebrate a victory against Big Oil when BP announced it would not renew its partnership with Tate Britain in 2017, effectively ending nearly three decades of sponsorship.  Citing “an extremely challenging business environment,” BP outwardly claimed declining profits for the sponsorship cut, but they may have inwardly cited the “challenging” marketing environment created by Liberate Tate and similar organizations who educated the English people about the unsavory corporate connections.  Liberate Tate celebrated the victory by releasing black confetti from the ceiling of Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Hall.  The black confetti symbolized the oil money cut off, but it might also have darkly indicated that the fight was far from over.

Turning off the spigot of oil money to Tate just slowed down the possible influence of BP.  Platform’s “Corrupting Influence” study (available online here) traces just how pervasively BP’s money spread, despite being only about 1% of the total funding for institutions primarily financed by public tax money.  Citing the abundance of their tax dollars at work at the Tate, activists asked to know just how much influence BP’s contribution bought.  Platform won access to some of the Tate’s records, but now the Tate refuses to disclose records of their dealings with BP dating between 2007 and 2011.  An Information Tribunal begins today, May 11, 2016, over Tate’s refusal.  Just as the Tate looks for good publicity to accompany their latest expansion, Platform hopes to hold their feet to the legal fire of freedom of information.

Tate security barrier off Deadline Festival display of Gideon Mendels Drowning World photographs

Image: Tate security barrier off Deadline Festival display of Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World photographs. Photography by Martin LeSanto-Smith. Photo courtesy of Platform.

If you think it’s no big deal what BP’s money bought, then consider that the most recent Tate Britain blockbuster show was called Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial PastAs Platform points out here, “It’s 2016 and Tate holds an exhibition called ‘Artist & Empire’ and the only colonial ‘tragedy’ that exhibition refers to is the deaths of British troops in Afghanistan in 1840.” As Mel Evans explained in Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, “If the [sponsorship] sign had no impact whatsoever, it simply wouldn’t be worth putting it up.” (See my full review of Artwash here.)  Evans argues that BP accentuates its “British-ness” through sponsorship and makes oil a “normal” or necessary rather than an avoidable evil.  Tate wants to sweep such associations under the rug, similar to how they roped off access (shown above) to Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World photographs staged during 2015’s Deadline Festival asking Tate to break it off with BP.

What’s the Big Deal about Big Art getting into bed with Big Oil over Big Ideas such as empire and, by extension, non-empires?  Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World photographs (shown at top of post) show people around the globe suffering the side effects of global warming caused by Big Oil’s actions.  Christine Eyene calls Mendel’s photographsa visual attempt to capture the magnitude of climate change through portraits of flood survivors taken in deep floodwaters, within the remains of their homes, or in submerged landscapes, in the stillness of once lively environments. Keeping their composure, the photographed subjects pause in front of Mendel’s camera, casting an unsettling yet engaging gaze. These images, taken across the world, bear witness to a shared experience that erases geographical and cultural divides. They invite the viewers to reflect on our impact on nature and ultimately, on our own attachment to our homes and personal belongings.”  Where Tate and BP want to divide the world into Empire and Not, Mendel’s photos remind us that we’re all standing on the same planet and that the rising waters will come for all of us eventually, unless we do something to stop them.

Dirty dealing between Big Oil and Big Art isn’t unique to Tate, BP, or England.  U.S. oil companies continually try to “artwash” their reputation with donations to the arts, especially Koch Industries Inc., which is owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.  In 2014, police arrested protestors condemning the new Koch Plaza outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Koch Industries Inc. generate 24 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses per year, while brother David sponsors and sits on the advisory board of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.  David Koch sat on the board of the New York’s American Museum of Natural History for 23 years while donating more than $20 million to them.  The Kochs contribute more to climate change than even Chevron or Shell, which makes their contributions to science museums seem like buying off the very places meant to educate the public on global warming and rising seas.  America’s “Koch problem” extends beyond the arts and museums, of course, but demonstrates the interconnectedness of such institutions to the bigger picture they don’t want you to see.

Visitors seedbomb Empty Lot installation in Tate Modern with sunflower seeds

Image: Visitors seedbomb Empty Lot installation in Tate Modern with sunflower seeds.  Photography by Martin LeSanto-Smith. Photo courtesy of Platform.

Public funds means public accountability.  There’s no reasonable defense for the Tate to refuse to disclose every detail of their relationship with BP.  If they have nothing to hide, they should be happy to show that.  If they do have something to hide, then the public needs to know how corporate money manipulated the public institutions they rely upon to ask the questions a culture needs to answer about itself.  Who knows how long this Information Tribunal will last, but you know it won’t be the last battle.  This protest is not about destroying institutions or careers, but rather about life.  To protest BP last year, visitors “seedbombed” Mexican artist Abraham CruzvillegasEmpty Lot installation (shown above).  What better to fight forces literally killing the planet than actual seeds of life?  Hopefully, Platform’s pushing for Tate to come clean with the facts about BP will plant a much bigger seed in the public’s mind and drive a bigger movement for accountability and change.


[Image at top of post: Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World photographs installed in Tate Modern as part of Deadline Festival.  Photography by Martin LeSanto-Smith. Photo courtesy of Platform.]

[Many thanks to Platform for providing me with the images above and other press materials related to the Information Tribunal beginning May 11, 2016, over Tate’s refusal to reveal sponsorship fees BP paid to Tate between 2007 and 2011.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.  Click on the Twitter and Facebook icons at the bottom of this page for instant access.]

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