Earlier this month it was revealed that BP, the oil industry giant, would end their sponsorship of Tate. It has been described by BP as decision based purely on business, unaffected by the years of campaigning against the alliance by fossil-fuel free advocates. To many, however, this seems dubious.
BP first became a sponsor of Tate galleries twenty-seven years ago, making it the longest running and most consistent sponsorship of any cultural institution in the UK. Their involvement has always been unambiguously apparent in the labelling of Tate Britain’s free galleries, which were visited by 35 million people during their three decades of sponsorship. ‘BP Spotlights’ and ‘BP: A Walk Through British History’ are current displays that suggest BP has virtually hand picked the art on display. Obviously, and thankfully, this is not the case, but their name has been a key part of Tate’s branding.
As a result, BP was always thought to be a significant investor in Tate, inciting displeasure and leading to anger in the eco-friendly circles. In 2011, the last renewal of the sponsorship program, a petition of 8,000 signatures was handed to Tate calling for a stop to this. Activist groups began a battle to discover just how much the sponsorship was worth. Despite a struggle of three years, there was a positive outcome. In 2014, Tate was seen to have twisted the Freedom of Information Act for its own use, negating its obligation to the taxpayers. the true financiers of this artistic institution. The sum of BP’s sponsorship was revealed to be between £150,000 to £350,000 per year. This is laughably small given that, in 2014-2015, Tate made use of a massive £221 million income. Tate members alone contribute forty times as much as BP each year: so really it should be their names stamped on the front of the galleries’ displays.
The proof of BP’s unimpressive (and somewhat unsatisfying) role in the financial assistance of Tate was not enough to put off activists; indeed it spurred them on. Why would Tate even need to continue such a deal if it only made up a mere 0.15 per cent (if my maths is right) of its income? Surely the only use of the sponsorship was for BP to show itself to have some morsel of credibility as a company. The eco-fighters could therefore continue their battle against BP without worrying about the future of this British art collection.
‘Liberate Tate’ has been the most prolific activist group against BP’s sponsorship of Tate. One of the wonderful things about this group is that not only does it campaign for the good of our environment but it does so with art, for art. They have referenced performance artists from Joseph Beuys to Guerilla Girls in their art activism. Acknowledging their assumed victory of BP’s submission a few weeks ago, ‘Liberate Tate’ announced online, ”We did this together. We did this with art. We did this as art.”
The group formed in 2010, encouraged by the catastrophic events of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. During a public art and activism workshop hosted by the Tate, curators of the gallery prevented the group attending from using their art to create interventions against Tate sponsors, even though none had been planned. This was an incensory action. The group continued their art beyond the workshop, forming ‘Liberate Tate’. They began with the presentation of a ‘birthday present’ as a letter to Tate, on the tenth anniversary of Tate Modern. “Beginning during your 10th anniversary party and continuing until you drop the sponsorship deal, we will be commissioning a series of art interventions in Tate buildings across the country,” they wrote, with a plan to “infiltrate every corner of Tate across the country.” And so they did.
The very first major act of defiant art implied in this letter by ‘Liberate Tate’ was the release of dozens of black balloons tied onto the remains of dead fish in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. Bird feathers were scattered around the onlookers, representative of the deaths that BP contribute to. The performances continued every few months over the next five years, generally with figures dressed in black, moving in a choreographed manner. One does feel somewhat jealous of the gallery visitors lucky enough to have been present at the time of each act of performance art.
The most recent act of protest, in November 2015, was a type of live tattoo studio, with an audience. Each participant had written on them the levels of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere in the year they were born. The message was clear: climate change is permanent, just as tattoos are.
It seems now that ‘Liberate Tate’ have achieved their goal, despite BP’s public assurance that such artistic campaigning was not a factor in their business decision to cease sponsorship. However, perhaps there will be more to come, as Tate is not the only cultural institution with the oily mark of BP imprinted on their walls. The British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery are just a few of the most well-known companies still accepting BP sponsorship.
Perhaps it is worth hanging around these landmarks in the hope of catching the next powerful episode of performance art.
Image Credit: Liberate Tate