LONDON — It’s 10am on the last Saturday of January, and Tate Britain is predictably sleepy. The museum has just opened its doors for the day, and a modest coterie of visitors treads lightly to preserve the morning hush.
But that tranquility won’t last long. Eight artist-activists enter the members-only café overlooking the museum’s pristine rotunda. Gaining entry to the café is no covert op; the activists are Tate members. They position themselves in the café’s outward-facing niches, encircling the rotunda. Clad in black, the unofficial uniform of the performance artist, they pull on sheer black veils. Each dissident reaches into a brown paper bag and, perhaps taking a page from Guggenheim protesters last year, proceeds to theatrically toss fake money into the gallery below — specifically, the BP Displays portion of the BP Walk Through British Art.
The fake £20 bills, which feature Tate Director Nicholas Serota on one side and Chair of Tate Trustees and former BP CEO John Browne on the other, float down slowly, coating the floor, sculptures, and staircase like a light snow. A little girl with pigtails runs through the flurry, giggling; a beleaguered member of the museum’s security staff makes repeated, panicked calls for backup on his walkie-talkie. The artist-activists throw £240,000 (~$360,900) total in fake bills, until the average yearly sum that Tate received from sponsor and oil behemoth BP between 1990–2006 has fully materialized in the gallery space.
This is the latest unsolicited performance by Liberate Tate, the UK-based artist collective that aims to end BP’s corporate sponsorship of Tate through tactics of creative disobedience. Titled “The Reveal,” the performance occurred on the five-year anniversary of the collective’s founding. Ironically, the group emerged out of a Tate Modern workshop on art and civil disobedience in January 2010. After being hired by the museum to organize the event, individuals from the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination received an email stating that they should “be aware that we cannot host any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors.” From this email, the workshop that followed, and its policing, Liberate Tate was born.
“The Reveal” references the latest twist in the narrative. This past December, on the heels of a three-year legal battle, an information tribunal decided that Tate had to submit to a Freedom of Information Act request put forth by activist organization Platform London. A week ago, Tate released minutes from its Ethics Committee meetings as well as details of the financial sums that it received from BP over the 1990–2006 period.
Many found the figures to be surprisingly small. The average £240,000 per year that Tate received from BP — and the value of the fake bills thrown this weekend — represents only 0.5% of Tate’s overall operational income. As one Liberate Tate member, who asked to be called “G,” put it following “The Reveal”: “It’s clear Tate can survive and thrive without BP.” To the collective, the paucity of the sums is just another reason the relationship is unjustifiable. But Tate says the figures represent “considerable funding.” In the face of the constant pressure on the institution to raise private money, BP has served as Tate’s longest-established corporate partner.
G, however, is firm that the partnership has socially sanctioned big oil, ultimately doing more harm than good. “It’s time for the arts to draw a line. Oil companies are a whole category of unacceptable partners for public arts, like tobacco and arms companies.” (See Hyperallergic’s recent coverage of art magazine Mute’s call for a boycott of the Zabludowicz Collection.)
When asked for comment, a BP representative told Hyperallergic: “We are extremely proud of our long-standing partnership with Tate … Through consistent support over such an extended period of time, we have been able to develop a partnership that we believe has been greatly beneficial to both Tate and its visitors and also to BP.” We have reached out to Tate Britain for comment on the performance but have not yet heard back.
Toward the end of “The Reveal,” Tate Britain staff began to clear the rotunda of onlookers. Once the Liberate Tate members had absconded from the museum — they were neither forced to leave nor detained by staff — a cleaning crew went at the area with massive brooms. One wonders about the effects of the campaign when it’s low-level museum staff who have to deal with the messy realities. Decisions concerning BP sponsorship are of course made at the top, with the board of trustees and senior management. Liberate Tate expressed the belief that a significant number of Tate staff do not want their employer to promote a fossil fuel company and furthermore feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously. The collective also noted an increased interest in their campaign among Tate members, a trend they had in mind when they decided to stage the protest from the Members Café. “The voice of Tate members is growing on breaking the link with BP,” G said. “More and more members are also joining Liberate Tate and asking to be part of our performances.”
The group says that in 2016 the Tate Ethics Committee will decide whether to recommend to the board that Tate end BP sponsorship or renew. Liberate Tate plans to continue to apply pressure to the institution through performances that “enhance the experience of people visiting Tate rather than disrupt them,” according to member Kevin, in the upcoming year.