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Are oil companies losing their social license?

fossil fuels divestment

The campaign for climate justice has landed me in some strange places over the past few years. I’ve invaded a theatre stage and smeared myself with fake oil while declaiming Shakespearean couplets; sung in a pop-up musical to disrupt the press launch of an art exhibition; and unleashed a giant sea-monster puppet inside the British Museum.

This uninvited guerrilla theatre, the work of our activist theatre group BP or not BP?, aims to challenge oil-company sponsorship of major British arts institutions. It’s part of a fast-growing movement for a fossil-free culture, which is working to kick away one of the struts the oil industry uses to prop up its power: cultural sponsorship.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a fossil-fuel company. To boost profits, you have spent decades lobbying against environmental laws, blocking clean-energy projects, spreading climate misinformation and colluding with repressive regimes. Your history is tightly bound up with violence and colonialism, and your business plan relies on a level of fossil-fuel extraction that would push the world way beyond 1.5 degrees of warming.

With this shameful record, and accompanying criticism, it can be hard to generate enough public acceptance to continue business as usual. That’s where sponsoring popular museums, theatres and public events comes in.

Evidence shows this to be an effective tactic. Market researchers found that sponsoring the 2012 Olympics gave BP a significant public image boost. Campaigners have calculated that for the price of a couple of prime-time TV adverts, an oil company can purchase a year’s-worth of high-profile branding at an art gallery, which comes with the added bonus of excellent schmoozing opportunities with key decision-makers. In recent years, BP has sponsored British Museum exhibitions in partnership with the Mexican, Egyptian and Russian governments, giving it access to officials just as the company was pursuing critical oil and gas projects.

Out, damned logo

Opposition to these dirty deals is growing. The last few years have seen a string of victories. London’s Tate galleries ended their sponsorship deal with BP after six years of creative anti-oil interventions by art collective Liberate Tate, the campaign group Platform and others. BP or not BP? succeeded in kicking BP out of the Edinburgh International Festival. The fossil-fuel billionaire David Koch left the board of New York’s American Museum of Natural History following an outcry by scientists and museum professionals, and the Right Side of History campaign saw the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) ejected from the Canadian Museum of History.

In 2018, rebel performance artists from Fossil Free Culture Netherlands ended Shell’s sponsorship of three major Dutch museums, including the Van Gogh Museum. Shell also parted company with London’s National Gallery, and major fossil-fuel funder Barclays was dropped as a sponsor of a Neil Young concert after the artist and many of his fans spoke out.

The groups share art and creativity as a key tactic. Libérons le Louvre create rebel performance art in Paris to protest the art museum’s Total branding; the New Orleans Fossil Free Fest uses art, music and film to challenge Shell’s sponsorship of the city’s Jazz Festival.

Stronger links are also being drawn to related injustices. In December 2018, hundreds of people packed out the British Museum’s galleries for an unofficial ‘Stolen Goods Tour’, to hear indigenous and Iraqi speakers demand the return of objects seized during colonial rule that had been put on display under oil-company logos. Western museums have much work ahead to address their colonial past – and that includes ending their collusion with the neocolonial behaviour of companies like BP and Shell.

As the climate crisis unfolds around us, the remaining oil-sponsored arts institutions – from the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company to the Netherlands’ Concertgebouw – are looking increasingly out of touch. With the #FossilFreeCulture movement planning more interventions, we look forward to seeing which other high-profile oil sponsorships will end in 2019…

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