There is no art collection I love and know better than Tate’s, no art museum I respect more, or visit as much. My art history education was thanks to teenaged visits to Tate. My steep learning curve into managing a museum/gallery education programme was thanks to my first proper job as Tate education officer in the 90’s. I haven’t worked for Tate for a few years now but I still feel grateful and awed, even Tate-branded. But that doesn’t mean I’m not critical too. I was quietly critical of BP’s sponsorship for the annual redisplay of Tate’s collections. I had been sickened by Exxon Valdez in 1989 (my cousin is a marine biologist in British Columbia & Alaska and is still dealing with the damage) and I was newly aware of anthropogenic global warming. The ongoing ethical crisis for Tate was the link between Henry Tate‘s patent ownership for the sugar cube and the earlier Transatlantic Slave Trade. I felt this was a really important aspect of Tate’s history that we had to address, but that the more urgent current issue was climate change. I was a pretty lone voice in that respect. When you’re a lone voice in a milieu of clever, strong-minded people, you tend not to repeat yourself or shout. I felt it was important to fit in, that my career depended on it.
In response to Monday’s artist-led protest against BP’s sponsorship of Tate, Nick Serota pointed out that the artists didn’t protest 20 years ago when the arrangement first started. He’s right that there weren’t dramatic protests. This is unsurprising as we had not seen or grasped the devastating effects of marine pollution on the climate at this point. We weren’t so aware, for example, of the effect of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, which is now emitting at 100,000 times more (or some estimate, 1 million times) than normal levels from Deepwater Horizon. Beyond the effect methane has of accelerating global warming, there is also the risk of a massive explosion leading to tsunamis, poisoning and mass extinction. BP ignored warnings that the Gulf lay over a vast area of methane, that drilling and small explosions may lead to bigger faults and rising pressure. Before now, we weren’t to know that BP would be at fault for a disaster that is looking liable to turn the Atlantic into a dead zone, as the Gulf sea bed is apparently now fractured in many places beyond repair (apart from the alarming use of Russian nuclear devices).
However, I do recall that there were questions about BP sponsorship at the time. Throughout the 90s I received many complaints about the endlessly changing displays, and within these were a few comments on the funding from BP that was enabling it. There have also been artists raising awareness of the links between fossil fuels and climate change for the past two decades. The group Art Not Oil draws together some of these artists, as well as the younger generation and the newly activist. Platform has been active in this area since 1996.
In retrospect I wish I had repeated myself and spoken louder then, not just about BP sponsorship but about the role of Tate’s learning offer in relation to the wider environmental crisis. I shouldn’t have felt fearful but expressed my authentic voice.
I went to Tate Britain on Monday night with three reasons for going. I took my camera and first joined the gang of paps shooting a patch of spilled oil, and a journalist assumed I was one of them. I’d been invited as a guest to the party too, so went inside and saw lots of old colleagues. (I also saw two women in floral dresses spill bags of molasses then attempt to clean it up.) Then outside, I became one of the protesters in my way. I caught Michael Craig-Martin and had a rather emotional discussion. (He felt that the oceans would heal themselves – which I doubt because the ocean is on the tipping point of acidification due to pollution. The media isn’t drawing attention to the fact that oil & plastic in the sea intensifies climate change. It doesn’t just destroy the livelihoods of shrimp fishermen.) I went and talked to the protesting artists and realised I’d been in touch with many of them before. Felix Gonzalez asked if he could film me speaking. If you watch this to the end you’ll see my bit. What I’m saying is that the world would not be worse off if culture ceases to involve rich people going to parties, due to a reduction in public and corporate sponsorship, that what matters is that children around the world grow up to live freely and to think freely. These freedoms are threatened in a climate-changed world.
I find it hard to understand how Tate’s ethics committee, and all the artists and staff I canvassed views on inside the party, persist in seeing BP’s sponsorship as essential and benign given the situation we are in. In this Guardian piece, you can see that the majority of views are against the protestors, apart from John Keane and Mark Ravenhill. Colin Tweedy says ‘Who’s to judge what’s good and bad money?’ to which I would say a) the taxpayer has a right to express views on what is good and bad partnership funding for public bodies and b) such judgement is what a cultural organisation’s ethics committee exists for. Tweedy says ‘If a company is legally allowed to operate in the UK, they should be allowed to sponsor arts.’ The problem is a major omission in our international legal system, which allows companies to destroy the environment in the interests of profit. If ecocide was made an international crime then much of what BP and Shell do would be illegal. The protesters are not saying ‘sponsorship is evil’ as Grayson Perry and others suggest. They are saying that the climate crisis is desperate, made worse by the behaviour of companies like Shell and BP. I’m not sure they’ve made it clear enough in their publicity statements though. Christopher Frayling says ‘now [in a time of recession] is not the time to get squeamish’ about where money comes from. He seems to think that the crisis for arts funding is far worse, or far more important, than the crisis to the biosphere. That bigger crisis doesn’t make me squeamish, it makes me downright sick, and above all it is making many people, animals and ecosystems downright dead.