Opinion

Felix Salmon

The ethics of accepting BP’s money

By Felix Salmon
September 20, 2010

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.

Comments
13 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Felix,

I doubt you would accept sponsorship from ANY unsavory group. In truth, BP’s actions aren’t repulsive enough to cross the line for you.

Posted by nedofbaker | Report as abusive
 

“There are serious ethical questions surrounding whether or not investors should own stock in BP. ”

Petroleum feeds us, Felix. I propose that you do the ethical thing and not eat tomorrow.

Me, I’ll do the unethical thing and eat.

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive
 

Felix, your protests against BP are kind of like a protest against the horrors of defecation. It is not so pleasant, but do you really know of another way?

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive
 

If BP is a criminal syndicate, then they (or their ADRs) need to be delisted from the NYSE, their US assets should be confiscated, and they should be banned from any dealings within our borders.

If they are merely a poorly run corporation that made a REALLY BIG MISTAKE, then none of the above applies, nor is there any reason for charitable organizations to feel badly about accepting contributions.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
 

If BP is a criminal syndicate, then they (or their ADRs) need to be delisted from the NYSE, their US assets should be confiscated, and they should be banned from any dealings within our borders.

If they are merely a poorly run corporation that made a REALLY BIG MISTAKE, then none of the above applies, nor is there any reason for charitable organizations to feel badly about accepting contributions.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
 

You’re basically arguing that the ends justify the means. So long as it creates good art, it’s OK to pollute, etc.

I suggest you follow your ends a little further, and not look at art as the end, but as a means in itself (which is what it is to BP). Rehabilitated image following laundering means the perpetrators are more free to commit more harm, because they’ve bought themselves into a more favourable aspect.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive
 

He who pays the piper calls the tune. Remember the recent PBS Koch-sponsored Nova propaganda that boiled down to “human beings thrive on change, so Global Warming is a Good Thing”? How about Pharma-sponsored academics failed to disclose conflict of interest? I repeat: He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Posted by IanAndEgg | Report as abusive
 

The BP spill was horrible and worldwide disgrace. That said, we must have oil and lots of it, or we are finished as a race (hopefully that won’t be true a generation from now). And finding oil is really, really tough. Thank you, oil majors.

Where should we get our oil? Exxon, who had a huge spill some years back? Shell, which blackens the waters of equatorial Africa? Iran?

I have a feeling BP will be a much better corporate citizen in the future, having been baptized by fire. Bill Gates was the most hated CEO in America and now he is considered a saint. BP may not attain sainthood, but they will be better…

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive
 

Always good to remember why Texaco sponsored the Metropolitan Opera for 50+ years: their bash celebrating Germany’s defeat of France in 1940. Also good to remember Texaco’s major role — at the same time — in Louisiana politics immortalized by Robert Penn Warren in ‘All the King’s Men’.

Posted by PDKinder | Report as abusive
 

‘We must have oil, and lots of it’. Er, no. We already have the technology to massively reduce our oil consumption and a)increase our output of renewable and sustainable energy and b) reduce our demand for energy, especially oil-consumption based demand such as aviation, right now. The only thing that’s stopping us is political will, which means OUR will. That’s you and me. To say ‘we must have oil’ is like saying ‘we must have corruption’ or ‘we must have strawberry shoelaces’. We make these choices. We have got the option to do it a better way.

I and many others protest against arts institutions who are funded by fossil fuel companies as just one of our tatics. Why? Because as another poster points out, sponsoring ‘nice’ things like the arts makes them look like nice, cuddly philanthropists. We think if the ‘necessary’ arms trade started sponsoring exhibitions of Turner watercolours, there might be a bit of a fuss. So let’s just point out here that fossil fuel extraction is directly responsible for thousands of deaths a year: from the tar sands project in Alberta to the Niger Delta. That the burning of fossil fuels (for which yes, we are all culpable) is already killing thousands a year – through unpredictable weather, food insecurity and disease. We protest against fossil fuel sponsorship of arts institutions to remind people of this. We think art should be part of building something better. At the moment it’s stained in blood and oil.

Posted by banjolele | Report as abusive
 

@banjolele –

I hope you an engineer and not some psychology or English or poli-sci major with no actual idea or interest in what our energy infrastructure actually looks like. Such as the giant combine tractors that feel us all, even the vegetarians.

I agree that we need sustainable energy, but do you even know what that means? It means massive development of, investment in and transition to electricity-based machines of all types, and enormous investment in hundreds of power plants, either nuclear or coal, pick your poison. The grid would need to be massively enhanced to handle much greater loads as well. And I for one don’t expect to see an electric airplane any time soon.

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive
 

DanHess, he gives some hints about his strategy in his other comments. When somebody wants to, “reduce our demand for energy, especially oil-consumption based demand such as aviation, right now.”, he is advocating a massive and immediate shift in our CONSUMPTION. Slash business travel, slash vacation travel, and stop “wasting oil” on air-freight including rapid-response shipping and international produce delivery (for out-of-season fruits and vegetables). In essence, turn back the clock eighty years.

And he’s right. That would solve the energy problem. It would also CREATE a host of other problems, but he hasn’t thought that through.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
 

I don’t think it’s a problem to take their money with two stipulations:

First, there shouldn’t be any stipulations about what kind of art is presented. I don’t see any reason to think there are.

Second, people who receive or benefit from it don’t use it as an excuse for bad behavior. The curators getting the donations aren’t arguing against heavy consequences for spills ( if they even had power to do so), as far as I’ve seen.

Better to make their donations to non-profits than to politicians.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive
 

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