The arts, ethics, and sponsorship: navigating an environmental path

Jane Trowell from art activist organisation Platform looks at some of the ethical issues surrounding arts funding.

There are many ways in which arts organisations impact on the environment and climate change. Many organisations have recently been forging new practices in terms of low carbon transport and technologies, renewable energy, sustainable materials. In 2012, Arts Council England became a world leader by introducing environmental reporting, policy and action plan requirements for its major revenue-funded organisations. But we at Platform argue that there's another element in moving away from environmentally damaging practices. Financial and funding relationships often get overlooked, yet they underpin all others, and a systemic approach to sustainability means thinking deeply about the activities we endorse through these relationships. Which industries do we consider environmentally damaging, and wouldn’t want our organisation to be associated with through sponsorship?  Are we equally at ease with mining, agrichemicals, pharmaceuticals, supermarkets, alcohol, nuclear, aviation, IT, coal, gas, or oil? Are there 'better' and 'worse' companies within these sectors? Where should we draw the line? Finance and funding is a significant part of the arts' carbon and environmental footprint – who we take money from (and where we bank it) is after all an endorsement and a promotion of the sponsor's activities.

The roll-out of ACE's Catalyst programme last year indicates that there's going to be increasing encouragement for arts organisations to create financial relationships with the private sector, both companies and individual donors. The situation is rapidly changing, and arts organisations of all scales would do well to get their thinking clear on questions of ethics and funding. Organisations committed to tackling climate change and environmental sustainability should be aware of the potential charge of hypocrisy if taking funds from private sector funders who invest in or directly profit from climate change or environmental damage. Let's look at Tate, which has made a public commitment to reducing its carbon footprint by signing up to the 10:10 campaign. However, it continues to be in an ongoing funding relationship with BP, which, through its activities is the third biggest historic emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. This kind of blatant contradiction puts Tate in the ethical spotlight and makes it a target for climate change, environmental justice campaigners, concerned arts lovers, including Tate Members themselves.

Controversy among audiences and stakeholders is one threat to reputation. But disagreement and unshared assumptions erupting from within is the most painful threat. Here's an example of a harmful muddle that occurred within Southbank Centre. In 2012, Platform was main speaker at a London Literature Festival event, launching our new travel book 'The Oil Road' on BP's pipeline from the Caspian to western Europe. Just before it started, the Duty Manager tried to censor materials on Shell that he thought Platform was displaying. This was later apologised for by Artistic Director Jude Kelly who stated that SBC had no policy to censor materials that are critical of their funders. She added that the DM had simply assumed that it would be the right thing to do, and that this assumption clearly needed to be tackled at all levels in the organisation.

Middle-scale and smaller organisations face equally grave infrastructural, censorship, and reputational risks, as they are less resourced and more vulnerable to internal or external disagreement. But they have the advantage of smaller staff and board numbers, which makes grappling with agreement on ethics much easier. In the current funding climate many arts organisations may still be unprepared on the question of the ethics of potential sponsors. Getting ahead and working towards a considered set of ethical guidelines maximises the chance of avoiding internal muddle and external protest.

Research is critical. Ethical Consumer, Corporate Watch, and Platform all offer resources on sectors and companies. Platform also runs workshops specifically for arts organisations to support them in developing  guidelines. We are currently working with Live Art Development Agency, Home Live Art and ArtsAdmin exploring ethical funding policy development as part of their joint Catalyst programme and will be holding a public event on the issue later in the year. If “Ethics is the aesthetics of the future” (Vladimir Illich Lenin) then it's a good time for the sector as a whole to put its money where its mouth is.

Further links

You can also Like Platform on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

Ethical Consumer

Corporate Watch

[The views stated here are the views of the author and not Arts Council England]

Image credit: 'Sunflower' by Liberate Tate, September 2010, Tate Modern; photo: Jeffrey Blackler

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