In February, a group of activists smuggled a 13-foot-tall wooden horse inside the British Museum in London. The morning after they were joined by around a thousand people, who gathered inside the building to protest the oil company BP’s sponsorship of an exhibition devoted to the ancient city of Troy. In New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New Museum have all seen protests over their links to issues like the oil and arms trade, gentrification and colonialism. In some cases, trustees have had to leave museum boards in response to the public outrage.
Museums have clearly become a new site of protest. Such protests often provoke a passionate response from both the public and the art world. Perhaps this is because they cut to the heart of art’s social value: What, and whom, are museums for? Another question these protests raise is why art matters so much — not to the public, or even to museums, but to sponsors and donors.
This year marks the fourth anniversary of a turning point for museum protests and sponsorship. In 2016, the Tate museum network became the first major cultural institution in Britain to drop fossil fuel funding, following six years of pressure from activist groups primarily led by the art collective Liberate Tate, of which I was a member. Liberate Tate conducted 16 uninvited performances in Tate spaces, including spilling molasses inside Tate Britain in 2010 during an event celebrating BP’s sponsorship of the institution and bringing a 121-pound chunk of ice harvested from the Arctic to melt inside Tate Modern in 2012.
Tate’s divestment from fossil fuels was followed by similar moves by the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain, the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Liberate Tate kicked off a new wave of protest performances inside major museums in the United States and Europe, directed at sponsors, donors and trustees. These changes suggest that another kind of museum is possible, but only if cultural institutions are willing to challenge and reshape their role in society.
Sponsors and donors’ valuation of our public culture is of an order very different from everyone else’s. For big oil, big pharmaceutical companies and the arms industry, it is not simply a case of doing good. For them, sponsorship of the arts is not charity; it is a strategic expenditure.
To conduct their business, companies must build a web of influence and operation through many of the institutions that are often clustered in cities, through which they become enmeshed in our lives. London, for example, is one of the main financial centers for the oil industry. Oil companies must extract from the city a combination of services, so that elsewhere they may continue to extract, refine, transport and sell oil.
This is a matter not only of buying financial services from private companies, but of creating legal, political and technological leverage; facilitating clearance from regulators; gaining support from government departments or legal permission for new projects. Cultural institutions are a key part of this infrastructure into which businesses must insinuate themselves to establish an air of social legitimacy and acceptability for practices that might otherwise risk coming into question.
This social license to operate is most visible in branded museum sponsorships, as the artist and Liberate Tate alumna Mel Evans documented in detail in her book “Artwash.” These sponsorships offer businesses the attention of influential audiences, access to senior government figures at special events and the opportunity to securely intertwine themselves with ideas of national history and culture.
This dynamic is far more visible in Britain, where companies usually offer financial support to museums through highly publicized branded sponsorships. In the United States, the interaction is less transparent, as money is often funneled to museums through a system of boards that reward individuals who make charitable donations to the museum with the culturally influential position of trustee. In addition to buying access to our shared culture, the charitable donations are tax deductible, potentially saving donors substantial amounts of money.
While activists in Europe have targeted corporate sponsorships, recent pressure campaigns in the United States have been aimed at particular trustees and donors.
In July 2019, Warren B. Kanders, a vice chairman of the Whitney, stepped down after months of protests over his company’s sale of tear-gas grenades reportedly fired at migrants at the United States-Mexico border and elsewhere during public demonstrations. For several years, activists called for the removal of Rebekah Mercer, who has supported groups that deny climate science, from the board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (Ms. Mercer stepped down in December, when her term on the board expired.) The Guggenheim Museum and several other institutions have moved to distance themselves from members of the Sackler family, amid public outrage over the role their company Purdue Pharma played in the opioid epidemic.
Some may ask whether museums can survive without the financial support of corporate interests. But art institutions in Britain that have divested from these industries do not seem to have struggled significantly since ending those partnerships. In fact, after dumping oil funding, Tate and the National Theatre took further proactive steps last year by declaring a climate emergency.
Museums have long celebrated themselves as ideal spaces serving the liberal public sphere, but since Liberate Tate’s first victory, they are increasingly being tested and taken at their word to be functioning public spaces. This means recognizing that ethics of funding cannot be isolated from ethics of curation. Funding, and funding models, represent the institution and its values.
Can museums recognize that the needle of public opinion has moved on key red lines like fossil fuels, the arms industry and colonialism? Can they accept that their endowment of social legitimacy has material results in the world, and use it responsibly? Can they acknowledge that they are not neutral, and that preserving culture and heritage for future generations is incompatible with supporting those who are destroying so many futures? These questions will increasingly be the new tests of leadership for museum directors.
The coronavirus outbreak has forced a sense of perspective on what is possible and what is valuable. When our museums reopen, it may be with a very different sense of their social value and function.
Gavin Grindon co-curated exhibitions on activist art at Banksy’s Dismaland and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He teaches curating and art history at the University of Essex.