As has been widely reported, a group of climate activists conducted a noisy protest outside the National Portrait Gallery yesterday. They were angry that BP, the bogeyman of an already unpopular industry, was the named sponsor for the gallery’s Portrait Award.
The relationship between big (and bad) corporations with the arts frequently results in these sorts of clashes these days. For banks, oil companies and supermarkets that are suffering reputation drain for everything from disgusting levels of pay to environmental issues, funding the arts is a cheap (for them) form of reputation salvage. Regardless of circumstance, these sorts of firms invest heavily in sponsorship and community activity as part of long-term PR plans.
The arts has an ambivalent attitude to all this of course. At the same time as firms like these offer massive potential revenue, it looks bad and it leaves a stain on the product. But as we all know, the arts needs corporate money desperately; indeed I’d go as far as to say that corporate money goes a long way to making London the centre of the cultural world.
So the question is not whether arts organisations court big business, but at what point they say, ‘sorry, but this is too much’. Shell sponsors Southbank Centre’s international orchestra series, which is fine until something goes wrong. But if Trafigura picked up the tab for the Royal Opera House’s education work, protesters would be practising their slogans and converging on Covent Garden. It’s a delicate balance and a tricky subject, but one thing’s for sure: in the present climate, no arts organisation can afford to turn down shillings lightly.