While BP struggles to put a stop to the seemingly never-ending oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and get a grip on its reputation; grassroots movement 'Art not Oil' puts pressure on the reputations of its corporate social responsibility beneficiaries - arts establishments in the UK.
Increasingly frustrated with the association of art and large oil corporations such as Shell and British Petroleum, Art Not Oil was founded in 2004 by Rising Tide, a conglomeration of grassroots groups wanting to take 'creative' action on the root causes of climate change. The group want to put pressure on the art establishments to distance themselves and seek more environmentally responsible corporate funders.
While many of us may shy away or blush at the methods of some (unnamed) environmental activists, Art Not Oil employs an emotive angle that will no doubt impact on the choices of its target galleries in the future. The Tate Modern in London for example and the National Portrait Gallery are all too familiar. On 15th May, Tate Modern was forced to close down parts of its 10th anniversary exhibition when activists had released dozens of dead fish and oil-soaked birds hanging from giant black balloons in the Turbine Hall. Mission 'Liberate Tate' sent a letter documenting their choice of birthday present to the museum...
"We wish we could celebrate with you, but we can't. Your corporate sponsor BP is creating the biggest oil painting in the world, inspired by profit margins and a culture that puts money in front of life. Beginning your 10th birthday anniversary and until you stop the sponsorship deal, we will be commissioning a series of art interventions in Tate buildings across the country..."
It is not the fear of damage or financial loss that the Tate should have at the forefront of its mind, it is the loss of reputation equity among the artists and art lovers alike in the UK. The Tate has become a staple of modern British culture and after ten years, the last thing they want is to lose credibility.
Art Not Oil are not interested in the fact that the Tate needs corporate sponsors, they are not thinking about contractual obligations. They do not want art to be associated with oil corporations, end of. And, the UK art scene is all about reputations and credibility. So Tate needs to think, fast.
What's even more interesting is how art not oil has inspired other organisations. Greenpeace recently ran the BP poster challenge, which asks artists or wannabe artists to design a new logo for BP (as Art Not Oil did with Shell in the past). Hundreds of entries followed, depicting BP as 'Black Poison', 'Big Problem', 'Broken Promises', 'British Polluters'. Greenpeace's Communications Director, Ben Stewart went as far as to scaling the BP headquarters in Mayfair to hang a giant flag of the new logo above the front door on May 20th.
BP have spent billions rebranding themselves as a responsible corporate citizen, and now all that has crumbled. Never has there been a riper time for grassroots activism against oil companies to have an impact. While BP can't disassociate itself from oil, Tate and other art-houses do have choices; they could go for a more 'responsible' corporate sponsor.
What we're missing from the debate so far though is, who? Art inevitably needs to be funded, and it will always be the bigger corporations (like oil companies, alcohol companies, property companies or banks) with the bigger sponsorship budgets. Especially with the new coalition government in place, there are fears among artists of funding being significantly cut. We certainly don't want art, or opportunities for UK artists to go away, so let's start thinking about who is acceptable to be funding it.