Oil industry sponsorship of cultural institutions: why young people are protesting

Protests at the National Portraits Gallery, the abandonment of a seat-subsidy for the Royal Shakespeare Company: the rejection of oil industry sponsorship on ethical grounds, largely driven by campaigns by young people, raises questions about what sources of philanthropy are unacceptable. IF Junior Researcher Melissa Bui – our lead in this ongoing Climate Change blog column – shows how the debate also has wider implications

If you had visited the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) three weeks ago, you could have found yourself in the presence of three semi-naked bodies, curled up and covered in fake oil on the floor, and surrounded by applauding bystanders. When taken out of context, this sounds like a scripted scene for a new horror movie. But it wasn’t entertainment: it was a peaceful protest against BP’s sponsorship of the NPG’s Portrait Award, a prestigious international painting competition.

The NPG is just one cultural institution amongst several others that, over the past few months, have faced renewed criticism for their partnerships with oil giants. The recent growth in discontent has driven the decisions of both the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theatre to dissolve of their sponsorship agreements with BP and Shell.

According to the RSC, young people and schoolchildren played a key part in their choice. But why is the younger generation particularly concerned with debunking and terminating oil industry sponsorships of cultural institutions? And are companies really listening to what they have to say?

Why cultural institutions?

Cultural institutions often portray themselves as committed to playing their part in addressing human-caused climate change. Many have already pledged to reduce their carbon emissions – earlier this year, thirty institutions across the UK agreed to be part of a co-ordinated effort to reduce their carbon footprints by 2023. According to a spokesperson for the National Theatre, they also have a duty to “tell stories, shape culture and encourage empathy and understanding” on key issues, including climate change.

But groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Student Strikers, BP or no BP, and Culture Unstained believe they are not committed enough if they are partnering with major polluters. Despite claiming to share the widespread concern over climate change, large fossil fuel companies haven’t been able to shake off their reputation as key contributors to global greenhouse emissions. A recent report by the Climate Accountability Institute ranked BP – the company most frequently under fire for their arts sponsorships – as the 6th largest contributor to all carbon and methane emissions in the modern era.

In the recent demonstration at the NPG and a student sit-in against BP and ExxonMobil at the University of Sheffield, the harmful consequences of oil exploration on marine life was also a central concern. Oil disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon have led to the deaths of 11 workers as well as hundreds and thousands of sea animals, and their impacts can still be observed decades after the spills.

For oil giants – environmental campaigners claim – these partnerships offer a much-needed rebranding opportunity. Chad, a 17-year-old student and project leader for the group who threatened to boycott the RSC, the Student Strikers, says: “Oil companies are guilty of ‘greenwashing’ their reputations with such deals. They promote themselves to children as environmentally friendly, culturally sensitive and open to ideas, rather than simply being about making money.”

This puts young people in a difficult position. In their open letter to the RSC earlier this year, the Student Strikers highlighted how the BP-sponsored £5 ticket scheme for 16 to 25-year-olds made the young people who chose to watch a play at this affordable price complicit in “promot[ing] a company that is actively destroying our futures by wrecking the climate”.

How are these institutions responding?

Many of these demonstrations have been met initially with a sense of defensiveness. To explain their reluctance to part ways, institutions have highlighted the social benefits attached to these partnerships as well as their struggles with obtaining alternative funding.

In the NPG’s case for instance, BP’s sponsorship of the Portrait Award supposedly enabled free public admission for over 275,000 visitors to the gallery last year. Sponsorship also funded perks that young people benefitted from exclusively – like the painted portraiture workshops at the NPG and approximately 80,000 discounted tickets that were sold under the RSC’s £5 ticket scheme.

For one institution, it’s not about the money at all: Science Museum director Ian Blatchford believes these companies should be perceived as potential collaborators in the fight against climate change. He says that big oil and gas companies have the “capital, geography, people and logistics to find the solutions [to climate change] and demonising them is seriously unproductive.”

Nonetheless, some institutions have decided to draw the line. Over the past month, both the RSC and the National Theatre announced that they would be ending their partnership with BP and Shell. They join the likes of Tate Britain and the Edinburgh International Festival, who parted ways with BP in 2016 after observing rising opposition to oil sponsorships from activists as well as people working in art, science and political institutions.

Young people are important players in this cause

Of course, young people are not the only ones taking a stance against these sponsorships. What is quite rare to observe though is that their actions are leaving a lasting message for some powerful companies. The RSC made it clear in their announcement that it was the “strength of feeling” from young people that triggered their decision.

Still, this win has not come without objections. Critics claim that letting go of BP as a sponsor did not put the oil giant under enough economic or political pressure to justify locking out many young people (especially poorer ones) from RSC productions.

But according to James Murray, the Founder and Editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen (an online platform which delivers news, analysis and insight on the green economy), youth activism on environmental issues is causing more of a stir than some critics and companies let on. As he described at a public debate on climate activism recently, many businesses are “terrified” by the stances that the youth – as their future consumers, stakeholders, employees and voters – are taking, but there is large variation in how they are responding to it. Businesses across the board are having to consider how their market models will need to shift to be able to maintain their “social licence to operate” and to manage their legal liability.

This would certainly be good news for the Student Strikers, who have chosen perhaps the toughest nut to crack as their next target: the Science Museum. Regardless of whether they manage to shift the Science Museum’s stance, this institution, alongside other businesses, is definitely under pressure to keep track of what the activists say.

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