The ethics of accepting BP’s money

By Felix Salmon
September 20, 2010
serious ethical questions surrounding whether or not investors should own stock in BP. But is it also unethical for art galleries and museums to accept money from BP? Time's Frances Perraudin gives the people who think so a lot of sympathetic space:

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There are serious ethical questions surrounding whether or not investors should own stock in BP. But is it also unethical for art galleries and museums to accept money from BP? Time’s Frances Perraudin gives the people who think so a lot of sympathetic space:

The cozy relationship between the arts and major corporations has often proved a controversial issue. But now, thanks to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, protesters — already angered by oil’s role in climate change and human rights abuses — are focusing their crosshairs on BP…

“It’s so galling to see every single cultural attraction in London that I care about stained with this horrible, horrible sponsorship,” says Liberate Tate member Tom Costello…

Critics accuse BP of using blockbuster exhibitions and arts awards (the highlight of the National Portrait Gallery’s year is the “BP Portrait Award”) to direct attention away from their environmental and ethical crimes. “These sponsorship deals give companies like BP the social license to operate,” says Dan Gretton, co-founder of Platform, an arts and research charity that puts pressure on arts organizations to dump their oil partners. “Having these links with cultural organizations is a way for them to launder their image.”

I’ve always thought of arts sponsorship from the likes of Phillip Morris and BP as the silver lining to their unpleasant activities. Yes, the sponsorship is a form of image laundering — but hey, if image laundering results in millions of dollars being spent on worthy arts organizations, what’s not to like?

I’m sad to see entities like the Tate being vilified for accepting money from BP. The job of the Tate is to present great art to the public, not to adjudicate on questions of corporate worthiness. There’s no inherent conflict between accepting BP’s money and exhibiting art. So if BP wants to assuage its guilty conscience by sponsoring a slew of arts organizations, let it do so. The alternative is to simply let that money flow directly to BP’s shareholders, which I don’t think would be much of an improvement.

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