Tate Summer Party Blues

Art Monthly, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Tate Summer Party Blues


Tate Britain's traditional summer party had an additional theme this year: celebrating 20 years of BP's support. But BP was in the news for other reasons and the timing proved irresistably provocative. Liberate Tate, a group dedicated to ending oil industry sponsorship at Tate, staged a protest at the party, spilling fake oil (actually tins of molasses, in reference perhaps to Tate's founder?) both inside and outside the gallery. The event reinvigorated the debate around issues of self-censorship and ethical sponsorship (Editorial AM334) and the Guardian published a letter signed by 171 prominent art world figures condemning Tate's acceptance of BP's money.

The debate is hardly new; Art Not Oil, for example, has been campaigning since 2004 to end oil industry sponsorship of the arts. The renewed focus is due, however, to a combination of BP's Deepwater Horizon spill and Tate's inadvertent assistance in creating Liberate Tate. These activists met at John Jordan's civil disobedience workshop organised by Tate Modern last year, which staff attempted to alter once it became clear that Tate itself would be the subject of the workshop (Jordan's article on the event, 'On refusing to pretend to do politics in a museum', AM334, is available in the 'From the Archive' section of Art Monthly's new website). In response to Tate's actions, members of the workshop formed Liberate Tate, a fact that is crucial to understanding the resulting debate.

Commentators' arguments about whether sponsorship affects programming have often been naive--on both sides of the debate. BP, it is often claimed, is a model sponsor because it makes no attempt to influence gallery programming. It is no doubt true that BP and Tate's executives have a clear understanding over arm's-length sponsorship, and any direct instruction that Tate curators avoid programming anything that could embarrass BP is highly unlikely. But corporate censorship does not work top-down in a democracy. At the lower end of the organisational chart, curators and educational staff may well be wary of commissioning anything that might compromise a sponsor. Second-guessing your bosses is how self-censorship operates, and who wants to put their job at risk these days? …

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