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San Diego Museum of Art refuses funding from tobacco giant Philip Morris due to controversy

The museum has been widely criticised by Californians for indirectly condoning the company's exploitation of addiction

This summer the San Diego Museum of Art will host an exhibition of work by the sculptor Deborah Butterfield. Under pressure from fierce protests, the museum has chosen not to fund the exhibition with donations from the Philip Morris Companies.

Philip Morris is one of the most important arts funders in the US at a time when corporate support for museum exhibitions is declining. Picasso and Portraiture, now at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and the Jasper Johns retrospective at MoMA in September are both supported by its money.

In fact, Philip Morris executives routinely maintain that arts groups seeking funds from them far outnumber those that receive support from the corporation. That may explain why museum directors, choreographers and other beneficiaries of Philip Morris’s art support have opposed anti-smoking laws on Philip Morris’s behalf, warning of the company’s possible retreat from cultural sponsorship. Critical journalists have received the same warning.

That cosy relationship between cultural organisations and Philip Morris may be changing. Protesters from the American Heart Association and other lobby groups “organised a media campaign and directed much of their efforts towards the trustees of the San Diego Museum. The board determined that at the present time it was probably impolitic to pursue the partnership,” said the director, Stephen Brezzo. No exact figure on the contribution was given, although he did say that it was far lower than a rumoured $1m. Anti-tobacco activists point out that the donation would have enabled Philip Morris to entertain guests at the museum this summer during the Republican National Convention. Also smouldering is opposition from other San Diego museums. In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Arthur Ollman, the director of the Museum of Photographic Art, said: “You just don’t co-operate with death dealing. If there’s no other way in a whole community to support a project, then I think you’ve got to look for a different project. There is such a thing as money that is too loaded, too tainted to touch”.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Up in smoke?"