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Buying Reputation Via Add-On Culture

Posted on February 2, 2015 at 4:00 PM

There has been an interesting development in a world where embattled business - post financial crisis and an evaporation of trust - fights for its reputation.

Britain's Tate galleries have been forced to disclose the financial sums of a controversial BP plc sponsorship deal and minutes of internal decision making over the sponsorship. This follows  a  Freedom of Information appeals process by Platform, Request Initiative, law firm Leigh Day and Monckton Chambers, lasting three years. 

It is surprising this has all taken so long: The financial sums as disclosed range from £150,000 a year between 1991-2000 to £330,000 a year in 2002-2007. They represent around 0.5% of Tate’s overall operational income during the overall period.

Since 2000, the amount to less than 1% of Tate’s self-generated income (i.e. donations, sales and sponsorship). So why fight hard for non-disclosure ?

Is it because, as campaign group Platform suggests: "Tate provided a veneer of respectability to one of the world’s most controversial companies for just £150,000 a year! " ?

Anna Galkina of Platform says:" BP desperately needs the ‘social licence’ provided by cultural sponsorship in order to continue trashing our climate. But Tate can clearly do without BP. A growing wave of universities, faith and government institutions are choosing to divest and break ties with the fossil fuel industry - it's time for Tate to join them!”

I am a Tate member, and a great fan. This is obviously a story about the embattled arts world in #austerityBritain - but it is also a warning shot to business, and to those who need its cash.


Tate renewed BP’s sponsorship contract for five years in 2011. Director Nicholas Serota commented during BP’s Deepwater Horison spill, “you don't abandon your friends because they have what we consider to be a temporary difficulty.”

But the newly revealed minutes of Tate’s Ethics Committee, which reviewed BP sponsorship in 2010, show some scrutiny of BP’s tar sands projects as well as of legal cases against BP as a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill. “Tate has taken a public stance on sustainability and is arguably the cultural institution most in the public eye in the UK. In light of this the reputational risk to Tate of retaining BP as a partner is significant” say the minutes.


But the Ethics Committee concluded that “taking a moral stance on the ethics of the Oil and Gas sector … is outside of Tate’s charitable objectives”.

Oh. Does that mean that charitable objectives lack a basic moral compass in a world of austerity?


In 2012 BP publicly declared it was providing £10 million over five years to four cultural institutions including Tate, which if split equally would provide Tate with £500 thousand a year. The Information Tribunal ruling criticised Tate’s “protracted, misguided reliance on [an irrelevant] document”, as well as “mistaken” and “somewhat fanciful” use of Freedom of Information exemptions over details of internal decision-making.


Rosa Curling, solicitor of Leigh Day who has been working on the case, said:

“Tate has fought and no doubt spent a large amount of money trying to keep this information secret. If public bodies are accepting sponsorship money from corporations such as BP, they must be open about how much they are receiving. Tate's actions have prevented proper public debate over the acceptability of the sponsorship, based on actual figures, for over three years.


Corporate sponsorship, be warned: you can't buy reputation through Art. And corporate governance, I would argue, extends to both buyer and seller - so the art world needs to do what art does well: define itself and be true to that definition.


Categories: Governance, Scrutiny, Behaviour