Corporate sponsorship of the arts: a necessary evil?

Saturday 2 November, 16:0017:15, Cinema 2Arts and culture

The confrontation between the arts and business worlds is gathering pace. Already this year, the campaign group Culture Unstained has escalated its campaign on fossil-fuel sponsorship of the arts by targeting the Royal Opera House and the Science Museum. In a major coup, Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance resigned from the Royal Shakespeare Company in June, citing its deal with ‘world-killing’ oil multinational, BP. Meanwhile, Serpentine Galleries lost its CEO following ‘toxic’ allegations about her links to a cyberweapons company. Last July, author Sebastian Faulks had epitomised the rising anti-corporate sentiment in the arts world when he declared Man Group, a hedge fund that sponsored the Booker Prize, ‘the enemy’, adding that they’re ‘not the sort of people who should be sponsoring literary prizes, but the kind of people literary prizes ought to be criticising’. Unsurprisingly, Man Group ended its sponsorship of the Booker Prize in January.

But in advocating that arts awards and cultural institutions should take on the corporates, is Faulks merely kicking at an open door? While countercultural artists have long wanted to stick it to ‘the man’, prestigious arts institutions are now getting in on the act, too. Most prominently, the Tate group of galleries declared it would no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family, who own the makers of OxyContin, a prescription painkiller under fire amid the US opioid epidemic. Likewise, the National Portrait Gallery turned down a £1million donation from the Sackler Trust, citing a ‘conflict with the objectives and values of the gallery’. Given museums and galleries remain keen to mount ambitious exhibitions, but also face a climate of public spending cuts, why are many thinking twice about the companies they work with and who to accept funding from?

Critics of anti-corporate campaigns, such as arts director Ruth Mackenzie, say ethical issues exist pretty much wherever money comes from. Indeed, art has long been supported by those deemed less than pure. For example, the clergy and wealthy merchants of Renaissance Italy supported artists that could atone for their sins and immortalise their legacy. Later, the Rockefeller and Carnegie legacies supported the arts with wealth sourced from ruthless monopoly capitalism.

Amid new claims that cultural organisations are complicit in worsening climate change, world poverty and human rights violations, has the time finally come to take a stand? Or does commentator Mark Lawson have a point that campaigners are behaving like ‘new puritans’ as they attempt to find ‘unethical specks on the hands that write philanthropic cheques’?

It’s not just institutions themselves that have concerns. A recent survey suggests that 73 per cent of British arts workers fear that they’re ‘vulnerable to reputational damage’ through links with the wrong sponsor or donor. Many welcome institutions becoming more circumspect about which corporates they work with.

Others question the very notion of a binary choice between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ funding. For example, when writers and activists recently pulled out of the Bradford literature festival in protest over monies acquired from a government counter-extremism programme, they inadvertently raised questions about the legitimacy of public funding, too.

Does sponsorship really corrupt the arts, or should museums and galleries take whatever money comes their way? Should state funding be considered on a higher moral plane – even if it often comes with strings attached? Does accepting public money make arts institutions complicit in everything from foreign wars to unpopular government policies? Even if it is agreed that some sources of money are ‘dirty’, who decides which sources of sponsorship are acceptable? Is there a risk that anti-corporate campaigns and policies become a form of moral grandstanding that avoids or even replaces a more constructive political engagement?