One of the most impressive features of Tuesday night’s Whitney Museum protest was the coalition of 23 organizations that collaborated on the guerrilla inauguration. From arts activists to Occupy-affiliated groups and environmental advocates, the range of organizations involved was impressive. Each had its own motivations for taking part. One man who spoke up during the “Public Comment” part of the evening’s program said he wanted artists to use this opportunity to highlight the pipeline’s presence and incorporate environmental themes into their work.
I’ve been following this issue for about a year, and my own research on the topic has been difficult because of the veil of secrecy around the issue of gas pipelines and the natural gas infrastructure at very high levels. The security measures in place are not extensive and it is hard to figure out how they are actually enforced. There is little oversight and no one wants to answer questions. When I learn more I will report it, but my research is frustratingly still incomplete.
One of the names on the list of sponsoring organizations behind Tuesday’s inauguration stood out: Liberate Tate. I decided to interview Glen Tarman, a member of the group, to understand why they decided to take part in what activists are trying to brand as the #WhitneyPipeline and what they’ve accomplished in their struggles with the Tate.
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Hrag Vartanian: Why was it important for Liberate Tate to get involved?
Glen Tarman: Liberate Tate shares a strong belief with our friends and allies in New York that high-profile art museums are institutions that matter. They can and should be changed for the better. And they should be used for social good by artists and others who value what they are and can imagine what they could be in our lifetimes and beyond.
The “carbon web” of fossil fuel interests and the art world that supports it is international and so must be the resistance to it by artists and citizens.
HV: What do you see as the commonalities between the situation at the Tate and the Whitney?
GT: When you stand outside Tate in London, oil company banners line the art museum — the presence of the fossil fuel industry is staring you in the face. At the new Whitney, it’s less visible, but it’s there, right under your feet in the form of a pipeline.
Artists are calling for civic responsibility from cultural institutions — not complicity with activity that’s destroying the planet. The common dimension includes that the governance and management bodies of these institutions made poor decisions to support the fossil fuel industry.
Tate and the Whitney — as many other arts museums around the world — can culturally divest fossil fuels. Art museums can change from functioning as cultural wellheads producing climate change and social injustices to be spaces that promote a just and sustainable future.
HV: Has your fight to “liberate” the Tate been successful?
GT: The issue of the controversy of oil sponsorship is now center stage. We’ve forced Tate to discuss its BP relationship at the highest level. Hundreds of artists and cultural workers have signed their name to letters calling on Tate to drop BP sponsorship in the press. Thousands of Tate members and visitors have petitioned Tate Director Nicholas Serota to end the sponsorship deal with the oil company. At Tate Member Annual General Meetings, BP is the top issue year after year. Members resign over the issue. Beyond this, we regularly hear Tate staff at all levels sharing our concerns with BP sponsorship at Tate. And Liberate Tate research blocked by Tate was taken up by Platform London and others, which resulted in the British courts ending the historical secrecy surrounding payments by BP to Tate.
There is real momentum gathering and when Tate reviews the BP sponsorship next year they will be under massive pressure to break that relationship and move on.
HV: Do you see this connection between your group and the New York-based groups as a growing global coalition of sorts? What groups in cities are joining with you in your struggle?
GT: It has become clear that there is now a global counter power to oil and gas companies attaching themselves to our much-loved museums whilst their social acceptability falls away.
Fossil fuel companies have a need to extract cultural capital to perpetuate their power. Art provides a way to gain the support of elites for harmful operations that might not otherwise be able to take place. This is an art movement for change that affects us all as artists and art workers on some level — we have a stake in the values that influential art institutions uphold, and it is for us to shape those values.
HV: What advice would you give to the Whitney Museum?
GT: The constituency you serve has a very significant and growing proportion of climate-conscious artists and gallery visitors. You can be part of the problem of climate change or part of the solution. Leadership of cultural museums in the 21st century is about choosing to be part of the solution and ensuring that that we do have spaces to reflect and imagine a world that is not polluted by the destructive forces of fossil fuels.