The National Gallery (image via Captain Roger Fenton’s Flickrstream)

On October 14, 2014, as a press conference for the Shell-Sponsored Rembrandt exhibition unfolded, a group of masked protesters took over the National Gallery with songs and banners. “Museum man was keen to please, he sold his soul upon his needs,” they deplored. “Our profits are growing, the earth is dead.”

Their signs spelled out inflammatory slogans: “Sell my soul to the oil devil/art for people not profit.” The uprising, also a reaction to union workers’ issues, was rapidly repressed by security guards despite the nation’s legal right to peaceful protest. 

Years later, and following the Tate’s decision to end ties with BP in 2016, these organizers’ campaign and that of other activist groups around the world has finally driven change. Culture Unstained, a research, engagement, and campaigning organization which aims to end fossil fuel’s sponsorship of cultural institutions, has uncovered documentation proving Shell’s decision to withdraw from the National Gallery in January of 2018. The organization probed the matter with a Freedom of Information request, where the decision unfolded in a series of emails. The museum, and company, had not publicized the news in the months prior to Culture Unstained’s investigation.

In response to the examination and FOI request, the National Gallery issued a 22-page “due diligence” report conducted by Dow Jones, which documented the fossil fuel corporation’s negative press on matters such as the environment, human rights, corruption, and fraud. The company is in the midst of a major trial linked to a corruption and workers’ abuse case in Nigeria.         

Shell has partnered with The National Gallery since 2006, as a sponsor and as a corporate member, most recently contributing about £20,000 to £30,000 (~$26,000–39,000) per year to the museum in exchange for privileged access and brand visibility. (Government Grant-in-Aid remains the Gallery’s principal source of funds; for the year ended 31 March 2018, the amount of Grant-in-Aid allocated was over £24m). Shell also sponsors a variety of other cultural institutions, including the new Electricity: the Spark of Life exhibition at the Science and Industry Museum, kickstarting the Manchester Science Festival (another partnership that has been widely criticized).

Fossil Free Culture NL’s “Drop the Shell!” protest demonstration at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (photo by Laura Ponchel, image courtesy Fossil Free Culture NL)

In response to increasing public pressure, and the decision by three major Dutch museums to cancel their relationships with Shell, the company has refocused their branding from the arts to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs and a campaign targeted towards millenials: “Make the Future Live.”

“Shell is recognizing that sponsoring the arts is no longer a boost to its reputation and retreating back to a space in science where it can get more impact and shape the narrative around climate change, because its product is becoming more unpopular by the day,” explains Chris Garrard, co-director of Culture Unstained.

Disturbingly, despite recent controversies and protests around cultural institutions’ ties with oil and arms companies, the National Gallery and governmental institutions have withdrawn from these debates.

“Ethics are constantly evolving in the arts and culture, and that line is starting to shift, particularly in terms of climate change and the report published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” continues Garrard.

The activist pointed out the key tension in this ethical quandary: the enlightening mission of cultural institutions in democratic societies on one hand, and the increasing budget cuts to the arts and pressure from the bottom line, on the other. He worried that museums are more concerned with their board members’ interests and their brands’ reputation than with the public’s well-being, compromising their decision making.

“Museums and galleries have clear values about sharing art,” explained Garrard, “but those things are at odds with the companies they are associated with. Often these museums will have sustainability policies or ethics policies, but when it comes to funding, these values clash. Holding museums and galleries accountable is very difficult, and based on possible damage to the reputation of the museum. But it should be the other way; values should come first. Boards of trustees making those decisions are linked to donors and companies, and they aren’t representative of the public — they are often white middle-aged men. If we want to address this inconsistency, we need to look at their governance.”

The National Gallery declined to comment, instead sharing their financial statements and ethical statement, which points out that decisions regarding ethics in fundraising and potential harm to the reputation of the institution is to be determined by top management.

As for the absence of governmental control of fundraising for public institutions, it might be revealing of even deeper ethical concerns, says Garrard.   

“The British government has been encouraging private sponsorships after the arts budget got cut,” he explained. “My speculation is that further investigations into sponsors would undermine this move. Shell and similar companies avoid paying tax and receive subsidies from the government and favorable tax conditions. If we made sure they paid their fair share of tax, we that money could go to arts organizations.” 

Shirine Saad is a Beirut-born journalist, programmer, and DJ focusing on culture and activism. She recently taught Arts Journalism and Criticism at Brown University, where she is the Founding Editor of...