TOPIC GUIDE: Sponsorship of the arts

"Corporate sponsorship is good for the arts"

PUBLISHED: 26 May 2016

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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In March this year BP ended its 26 year sponsorship of Tate Galleries, as well as its 34 year sponsorship of the Edinburgh International Festival, citing an “extremely challenging business environment” as the reason [Ref: Guardian]. This announcement coincided with the recent debate about the pros and cons of corporate sponsorship of the arts, which has been under scrutiny from critics who question the ethics of theatres, art galleries and museums accepting funding from businesses such as oil companies and banks. Although taking place amid cuts in government funding in the arts, those opposed to corporate sponsorship argue that ethics are a vital aspect of an institutions identity, and are concerned by cultural institutions accepting corporate sponsorship from companies such as Boeing, GlaxoSmithKline, and Goldman Sachs [Ref: Wired]. On the other hand, supporters of corporate sponsorship point out that the arts and corporate money have had a long and complex relationship, and note that without the help of corporate donors from all industries the arts would suffer hugely, as one commentator highlights: “Until museums find a grove of money trees, corporate sponsorship will be a necessary part of their lives.” [Ref: Financial Times] So, should corporate sponsorship of the arts be celebrated as a key aspect of maintaining the UK’s reputation as a world-leading cultural centre? Or do cultural institutions compromise artistically and ethically when they seek corporate funding?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The arts funding problem
With Arts Council England seeing a reduction by 36% in government funding since 2010 [Ref: BBC News], arts institutions are under increasing pressure to find alternative streams of funding. As writer Michael Skapinker argues, in this financial environment corporate sponsorship has become vital to arts institutions because: “It helps keep museum admission free…an end to corporate sponsorship would mean museums having to charge for entry, getting rid of staff, restricting opening hours, or all of these.” [Ref: Financial Times] However, opponents counter that with the modest levels of sponsorship that Tate have received from BP annually (on average £224,000), representing just 0.5% of their annual revenue [Ref: Guardian], they could easily do without that money – or could find it elsewhere. Some also argue that the state is the best source of funding for the arts. They suggest that rather than encouraging institutions to seek corporate sponsorship, it is the role of government to support culture, because “the arts are one of the hallmarks of a civilised society” [Ref: New Statesman]. Others see things differently, with one radical suggestion being that the state stops funding the arts altogether because “if the funding tap was turned off tomorrow, we would not run short of artists in the way we might run short of nurses or bin men. No artist or impresario was ever put off their vocation by the lack of a guaranteed wage.” [Ref: Telegraph]

Biting the hand that funds?
“Money, power and culture have always been intertwined” [Ref: Financial Times] observes commentator Nick Butler, a view which many advocates of corporate funding of the arts share. Using the British Museum as an example, he goes on to argue that business sponsorship of art and culture is a good thing, because: “What is clear is that without the funding, the museum could not have put on the great exhibitions, covering everything from Vikings to ancient Persia, that have drawn tens of thousands of people in the last decade.” [Ref: Financial Times] Cultural historian and sociologist Dr Tiffany Jenkins agrees, and highlights the long standing relationship that has existed between big business and art. She states that: “Artists and arts institutions have always needed significant sums from the wealthy and from corporations like BP. And they always will.” And furthermore: “The Medici, a prominent banking family, was partly responsible for the flourishing of Renaissance Florence, as they funded some of the greatest artists that ever lived. Without the support of such power crazed men, we may never have had the art of Michelangelo, Donatello, Fra Angelico and Leonardo da Vinci.” [Ref: Scotsman] Advocates also suggest that art and culture do not occupy an ethically pure domain which is sullied by corporate money. The Nobel Prize, and its money for instance, come from Alfred Nobel, an arms manufacturer, the renowned Getty Museum and Trust were founded by John Paul Getty, an oil magnate, and: “The Guggenheims became philanthropists only after polluting Philadelphia and running some mining interests that would, perhaps, today, be seen as criminal” [Ref: Telegraph], yet their contributions to funding art and culture benefit us all. However, despite these arguments, critics of corporate funding are not convinced. Activist and artist Amanda Grimm asserts that it does matter to the art and the institution where sponsorship comes from – as this reflects the kind of values that they adhere to, which is vitally important. As such, with respect to BP, she notes that, “the arts are too good to associate themselves with fossil fuel companies” [Ref: Commonspace].

Unethical and bad for the arts?
For critics of corporate funding, the issue has both ethical and practical dimensions. Playwright Mark Ravenhill warns that arts organisations which accept funding from oil companies such as BP are by virtue of association endorsing their activities, and suggests that: “Artists should have no part in this.” [Ref: Guardian] Some critics also challenge the motives of companies, and claim that their sponsorship is nothing more than an attempt to gain positive publicity because, “the prestige of being associated with the UK’s leading arts organisations” makes it worth their while [Ref: Guardian]. Moreover, many argue that cultural institutions do make ethical distinctions that determine which type of organisations they will accept sponsorship from, as author and environmental activist Mel Evans emphasises. She notes that the arts have a history of distancing themselves from certain brands and industries – for example Tate have refused to accept money from arms or tobacco companies since 1986 [Ref: New Statesman], and the Museums Association’s code of ethics states that museums should, “seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with those of the museum.” [Ref: Museums Association] However, critics of an ethical approach to funding argue that more often than not: “Any inflated posturing about the relationship of art to ethics to money, is bound to end in an embarrassing collision of principles” [Ref: Telegraph]. Aside from the moral aspects of corporate funding, critics also outline practical concerns, one of which is artistic autonomy. Amid recent claims regarding BP [Ref: Guardian] and Shell [Ref: Guardian] attempting to wield influence in their relationships with arts institutions, some say that corporate funding will always come with conditions. Theatre director Rebecca Atkinson-Lord outlines the problem of artistic licence, and concludes that ultimately: “It is important to realise that, consciously or not, every pound of corporate money we accept risks making artists less able to genuinely pursue the activistic agendas of their choice.” [Ref: Guardian] If this is the case – what are the other options - does state funding allow any more artistic licence? Opponents think not, and highlight that: “Public funding itself is far from pure. It often comes with strings attached” [Ref: spiked], and, “arts practitioners and institutions seeking state funding, are still compelled to prove that they can meet a range of targets that have nothing to do with creating and presenting high quality art, and everything with fulfilling various political agendas.” [Ref: Huffington Post] So, given the competing arguments, is corporate funding in the arts a good thing? Or are there too many ethical and artistic problems associated with such arrangements?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Why the British Museum should accept BP’s Money

Michael Skapinker Financial Times 6 April 2016

BP outlawed as a British Museum sponsor? Amazing

Stephen Pollard The Times 5 April 2016

Biting the hand that funds art

Tiffany Jenkins Scotsman 28 June 2014


British Museum must sever its links with BP

Margaret Atwood et al Guardian 3 April 2016

Are ethics and activism becoming luxuries for arts organisations?

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord Guardian 30 September 2015


Who funds the arts and why we should care

Rachel Spence Financial Times 19 September 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The British Museum should take BP’s cash

Financial Times 20 May 2016

Why cultural institutions should accept oil money

Nick Butler Financial Times 10 April 2016

Arts + corporate sponsorship = a match made in Hong Kong

Bong Miquiabas Forbes 20 March 2016

Museums Association code of ethics

Museums Association 2016

Why shouldn’t the Tate take oil money?

Tiffany Jenkins spiked 29 December 2015

Corporate art sponsors’ cash earns perks and mutual benefits

Dalya Alberge Financial Times 4 December 2015

Corporate art sponsorship is a complicated business

Matt Timms Business Destinations 25 August 2015

A critics plea: stop all arts funding now

Douglas McPherson Telegraph 28 May 2015

The sponsorship files: who funds our biggest arts institutions

Susanna Rustin & George Arnett Guardian 2 March 2015

Should Britain’s arts organisations accept more corporate sponsorship?

Susannah Butter New Statesman 3 February 2011

A Government of philistines

Sholto Byrnes New Statesman 24 July 2010


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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