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Protesters Attack British Art Galleries Over BP Sponsorship

  • Henry Ridgwell

Artists and environmental protesters have joined forces to attack British art galleries and museums over their acceptance of sponsorship from oil giant BP. The huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - following an accident at a BP rig - has thrown the spotlight on the company's attempts to create a positive public image. But , with government funding for the arts facing big cuts, many art-lovers are also grateful for the support the oil company provides.

It's summer in London and the city is buzzing as millions of tourists come to visit. At nearly every one of the major attractions - from the Tate Modern and National Portrait galleries, to the British Museum, and the Royal Opera House, there's one corporate logo displayed alongside the exhibitions - the green and yellow flower of oil giant BP. The company spends millions of dollars on sponsoring the arts to generate positive public relations.

Tarnished image

But the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, following an explosion at a BP rig, has tarnished that image. It has prompted attacks from artists and environmentalists, over the relationship between art and the oil industry in Britain.

"We're now in a time of climate crisis," said artist John Jordan who has helped coordinate the anti-BP campaign. "We need to look at these companies and go, 'Hang on, do we want a culture that supports these companies, or do we want something else? Do we want art that is supporting other kinds of culture?' This is a perfect time to re-think all these questions and to stop taking this absolutely foul, dirty money."

The demonstrations have been eye-catching. During an event at the Tate Modern gallery to mark 20 years of BP sponsorship, protesters spread oil and feathers across the entrance just before the VIP guests turned up.

At the Tate Modern Gallery, they released black helium-filled balloons with dead fish attached to them. Gallery staff were forced to shoot down the balloons with air rifles.

And demonstrators poured oil-filled eggs onto a BP-sponsored Easter Island exhibition at the British Museum.

Art sponsorship

In a joint statement, the galleries and museums defended the BP sponsorship deal, saying, "We are grateful to BP for their long-term commitment, sharing the vision that our artistic programs should be made available to the widest possible audience."

With Britain's economy barely out of recession, government spending on arts and culture faces a cut of up to 25 percent. Alan Davey is the Chief Executive of Arts Council England which allocates government money.

"The protesters were in one respect being a little naïve because in this country we do depend on corporate giving and individual giving as part of the mix and we don't just survive on government funding alone," said Alan Davey. "So I think we need to be realistic that we're grateful for corporate funding and we should seek it wherever we can get it."

Public opinion

Next to the River Thames in London stands the vast brick Tate Modern gallery, converted from a former power station. Our reporter asked some of the visitors what they thought of BP's sponsorship.

"Part of me thinks it's nice the big corporations are giving money to the arts and I don't know if they pulled all the BP funding whether things like the Tate would be able to continue if they do," said one.

"BP are a pretty grim company aren't they? It's not just the oil spill," said another. "There's the tar sands in Canada under investigation. They seem to be an all-round horrible company."

"I think BP is a good company which is being unfairly hounded and I welcome the fact that they are still sponsoring these organizations," was another opinion.

Britain's galleries and museums say they need sponsorship to continue to offer free entry and a wide range of exhibitions. But environmentalists say they will continue protesting until the galleries stop taking what they insist is '"dirty money".