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UK Museum Ethics Committee Rejects Allegations of Corruption in BP’s Sponsorships

Art Not Oil and other supportive groups on the steps of the British Museum (photo by Anna Branthwaite, provided by Art Not Oil)
Art Not Oil and other supportive groups on the steps of the British Museum (photo by Anna Branthwaite, provided by Art Not Oil)

In May, the Art Not Oil coalition penned a 40-page report that suggests how BP takes advantage of its relationship with its sponsored cultural institutions, requesting that the Museums Association examine whether these deals are at all unethical. The Association’s Ethics Committee announced today that it found no violations of its Code of Ethics from the provided evidence, which contained internal emails and memos from the British Museum, Science Museum, Tate, and National Portrait Gallery that Art Not Oil acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Committee dismissed the report’s allegations that shared intel of anti-oil protests and BP’s influence on museum programming as well as on curatorial decision-making were suspect, describing these practices as “common practice” and “appropriate.”

Museums Association's Code of Ethics in booklet form (photo via @musuemsassociation) (click to enlarge)
Museums Association’s Code of Ethics in booklet form (photo via @musuemsassociation) (click to enlarge)

“None of the emails quoted in the report suggest anything other than polite correspondence and friendly working relationships,” the Committee wrote. “The inclusion of such correspondence in the Art Not Oil report was considered poorly judged.”

Art Not Oil has published its own extensive response to the decision, noting that its members are grateful the Museums Association investigated their claims but that they are “disappointed that they have not taken a stronger line today.” The coalition’s own statement argues that any museum doing business with BP is backing and endorsing a major fossil fuel company it considers destructive to the climate crisis, and that the oil giant is no typical backer, thus requiring greater levels of scrutiny.

“[The Committee members] start from the premise that their remit does not extend to commenting on BP’s business practices, and approach the report’s content disconnected from this essential context,” Art Not Oil writes. “They then describe much of the activity we uncovered as ‘standard practice’ for a relationship with a corporate sponsor. But BP is not just any sponsor — it is an extremely powerful international oil company with controversial operations, a multi-billion dollar turnover and a serious image problem. As a result, no interaction between BP and a cultural institution takes place in an ethical vacuum.

“We would therefore question whether, in this case, ‘standard practice’ is best practice,” the statement continues. “We believe that the purpose of an ethical policy is to continually revise an organization’s practices in relation to a shifting global context. And that context is shifting fast.”

The Museum Association’s decision follows a recent, major blow to Art Not Oil’s mission to end oil industry sponsorship of the arts: the renewal of BP’s five-year deals with the British Museum, London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Opera House. But as the coalition urged in a statement issued last week, it will continue to challenge such partnerships as long as BP’s logo hangs in cultural spaces.

Art Not Oil’s Chris Garrard told Hyperallergic that the Information Commissioner’s Office is also now investigating the coalition’s complaints over inconsistent responses to their FOI requests from BP-sponsored museums.

“Alongside that, we are continuing to make further information requests in order to develop an even fuller picture of how BP uses it arts sponsorship to cleanse its image and push its agenda,” Garrard said.

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