They're still turning down FOI requests and being shady about their deal with the oil giant.
The Tate Modern (Photo via)
Our world is full of world-ruining companies trying to look good by sponsoring the things we love. “Sure, we may have drowned those kittens, but remember all those festivals we funded?” they say, shrugging their shoulders, giving us a roguish smile. Of all the greenwashers out there, the oil company BP is one of the most famous. For over 20 years, they’ve sponsored the Tate galleries, inserting their logo onto walls and into brochures, quietly suggesting that when you think of BP, you should think of the shock of the new and the challenging, not the shock of seeing a beach full of oil-covered seals slowly dying.
For the past two years, the Tate has been refusing to fully satisfy a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that asked them to disclose the true extent of BP’s sponsorship and the meetings that led to the decision to renew this sponsorship. While the National Gallery responded within weeks to a request concerning how much the Italian defence company Finmeccanica sponsor them, the Tate are holding out.
The Information Commissioner's Decision notice from the 4th of March this year, which I have seen, shows that Tate even tried to avoid disclosing the information on the grounds that it would "endanger public safety". This, Tate says, is because information about the deal with BP "would be likely to increase protests and activism and therefore prejudice public safety". The commissioner remained "unconvinced that this information would be likely to endanger public safety" and ruled against Tate.
The fact that they are using a legal defence usually reserved for issues relating to terrorism is particularly insulting; people might have some strong feelings about Rothko, but they’re not going to die for him. It’s not the 60s any more.
This week, the Tate appealed the Information Commissioner’s judgement, which was that Tate should give up most of the information. What does the gallery have to hide here? Is it that, as some calculations suggest, they only get £0.5 million from BP and that money is pathetic when you consider that Tate’s galleries took in £69 million in voluntary income alone in 2012? Is it pressure from BP, which doesn’t want to see an end to their happy PR days? Either way, Tate continues to spend money on a legal team to deal with this request, and in doing so prevents the public from having a proper, well-informed debate about BP’s involvement with this country’s major art institution.
Or perhaps the whole thing's just been a big misunderstanding and the email asking for the information has been getting forwarded around the Tate office for the last two and a half years, trapped in a never-ending cycle of “out of office” replies and “This isn’t my area, I better forward it to External PR” memos. Who knows.
What's interesting is that, in 2008, Nicholas Serota, the Tate's director, said: "We're a more open organisation than any equivalent organisation in the world. Can you find the minutes of the trustees' meeting of the Museum of Modern Art on their website, or the Pompidou? You can't. So we're at the forefront of being as open as we possibly can."
But, in reality, that clearly doesn't seem to be the case. So to illustrate just how long this has taken – and to give you an idea of what has happened – here is a timeline of the events that have unfolded since the sponsorship was renewed.
A ship floats on a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (photo via)
27 June 2011: The Tate ethics committee discuss BP Sponsorship Renewal and agrees that there are “no particular concerns with any of Tate’s current corporate relationships”. The committee notes that previous discussions had “recommended the continuation of a high level working relationship with BP, even in the face of reputational considerations, and that the situation had improved since these previous discussions”.
By that, they meant that it was no longer the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when BP became hated the world over for desecrating the Gulf of Mexico and then suggesting, via then-CEO Tony Hayward, that the spill was "relatively tiny" in comparison to the "very big ocean”. In fact, it was the largest marine oil spill ever. Forget the 4,500 animals that died, and the 11 humans, the real tragedy was how much work Hayward had to do. After a couple of months, he moaned, “You know, I’d like my life back.”
23 July 2011: Amy Winehouse, wild rose of our hearts, dies.
20 October 2011: Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, wild thorn of the desert, dies.
Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate (Photo via)
5 December 2011: Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, receives a petition signed by over 8,000 Tate members and gallery goers calling for BP’s sponsorship to be dropped. Despite the decision having already been made, Serota earnestly tells the members that their views have been “conveyed to the trustees” and that they will have a “very difficult decision to make” regarding the continuation of the deal with dear old BP, who have “supported the gallery over a 20-year period”.
15 December 2011: The US officially brings the curtain down on the Iraq War.
19 December 2011: The Tate – along with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House – renews its deal with BP, which lasts till 2017 and is worth £10 million for the four institutions, meaning the Tate might only get half a million a year from BP. "The fact that they have one major incident in 2010 does not mean we should not take support from them," Serota says, referencing the, you know, disastrous oil spill thing.
25 December 2011: Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, in the celebration they call Christmas.
28 December 2011: Campaigner Glen Tarman submits the original Freedom of Information request regarding the lead-up to the decision to renew BP’s sponsorship.
26 January 2012: Tate tell Glen Tarman they can’t respond to his request within 20 days because they are trying to weasel out of it / “are considering the application of qualified exemptions in relation to your request, i.e. exemptions that are subject to the public interest test”.
1 April 2012: Game of Thrones season two premieres. Winter continues to come.
1 May 2012: Genial OAP Roy Hodgson is appointed England manager. A feeling of quiet, respectable defeat surrounds English football.
13 June 2012: Brendan Montague – director of transparency organisation Request Initiative – sends a new FOI request on behalf of Platform asking for the minutes of Tate’s ethics committee, as well as the material not disclosed to Glen Tarman.
Members of Liberate Tate wheeling a part of "the Gift" into the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall
7 July 2012: The art collective Liberate Tate installs “the Gift”, a 16.5-metre-tall wind turbine blade in Tate Modern as a protest against the BP sponsorship. They file some paperwork asking for it to be considered as a piece in the permanent collection.
13 July 2012: Tate knocks back the majority of Montague’s two requests and releases a sprinkling of information relating to Tarman’s original request. To determine whether disclosure of information would prevent free and frank discussion, the Tate has to take the view of its “qualified person”. Other information is withheld under commercial confidentiality and risk to public health and safety.
This “qualified person” is former BP Director Lord Browne, who also happens to be Head of the Board of Trustees at the Tate. Lord Browne is the British political elite’s Keyser Söze. Obviously he's not inflicting any Spacey-like horror on his "enemies", it's more that he's a constant presence in the back, a lingering feeling in the boardroom.
He’s the “non-executive director” of the Cabinet Office and the chairman of the oil and gas company Cuadrilla, who want to frack as many of the UK's shale gas reserves as possible. Behind every large oak door is a leather-bound chair, and in that chair sits Lord Browne, at the centre of it all, like something out of a Jonathan Coe novel about the way English power operates. Men like this will never allow a bunch of yobbo campaigners to upset the natural order.
12 August 2012: On the streets of Britain, children do the Mobot as the Olympics come to an end with patriotism at an all-time high.
24 October 2012: Hurricane Sandy batters the east coast of America.
25 December 2012: Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, in the celebration they call Christmas.
11 February 2013: Pope Benedict XVI becomes the first papal quitter in six centuries.
28 February 2013: US court begins trial against BP over Gulf spill.
29 April 2013: Gulf Coast organisations write a letter on Tate and BP sponsorship:
“While BP has been trying in court to prevent compensation payments from being made to those whose lives have been devastated by the spill, it's also embarked on a massive publicity campaign to sponsor cultural and sporting events in order to convince the world what a good corporate citizen it is. Sponsorship deals with prestigious arts institutions like Tate contribute and reinforce the power-base of oil companies like BP, which in turn are able to ride roughshod over communities like ours that they have devastated. We’re convinced that the average gallery-goer in the UK would prefer that the Tate found sponsorship that wasn’t directly linked to the devastation of our ecosystems and livelihoods.”
1 May 2013: On the day that BP Walkthrough British Art opens at Tate Britain, atmospheric carbon hits 400ppm for the first time in 3 million years (which is not a good thing).
Jon Snow, Chair of Tate Members Council (photo via)
14 May 2013: Tate members get upset with their council chair, Jon Snow, of Channel 4 fame, who they feel "patronises" them after months of saying nothing about BP:
“We feel that we attended the meeting with very legitimate concerns, and to be told by Mr Snow that ‘If you are talking about morality, well, once you get into morality you’re in a very big place,’ or to suggest that we should read George Bernard Shaw feels like a means of dismissing any basis of what we had to say, rather than attempting to engage with the content.”
Snow, no doubt buried in a copy of Pygmalion, doesn’t seem too bothered, and fails to respond to their complaints.
6 June 2013: Edward Snowden discloses information about the US government that they'd really rather he hadn't.
20 November 2013: A proud day for BP, as they hit number three in the “all time greatest corporate emitter of carbon” charts and are denounced as one of the companies most responsible for causing climate change.
25 December 2013: Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, in the celebration they call Christmas.
4 March 2014: The Information Commissioner’s ruling overturns the majority of Tate’s claims over redactions.
24 March 2014: BP’s Whiting Refinery leaks into Michigan lake.
31 March 2014: Tate files an appeal to the court order that would make them reveal the deals of their sponsorship. This appeal will buy them months of time and lead to them shelling out more in legal fees.
They really don’t want to talk about BP.