BAE Systems pulls sponsorship of Great Exhibition of the North after protests

The defence giant withdrew after Art not Arms petition condemned company’s sales to Saudi Arabia

Visitors look at a display model of a Saudi Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon jet, manufactured by BAE Systems Plc, at the Armed Forces Exhibition for Diversity of Requirements and Capabilities (AFED) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 27 February Mohammed Almuaalemi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

BAE Systems, Britain’s biggest arms dealer, has withdrawn its sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North (22 June-9 September) following a wave of criticism from arts professionals who called the partnership “unethical”.

The artists Emily Hesse and Jill Gibbon, whose work explores the arms trade, and the curator Sara Makari-Aghdam launched a petition protesting BAE’s backing called Art Not Arms which had garnered more than 600 signatures. The petition claimed that “British arms companies including BAE have made more than £6bn from sales to Saudi Arabia during the ongoing war in Yemen.” Art for Arms subsequently tweeted: “We did it! BAE have pulled out of the exhibition. We can influence change when we stand united.”

In a statement the group said: "We, the artists and cultural workers behind the Art Not Arms campaign are extremely pleased with the decision. The Northern (particularly North Eastern) artistic community came together to fight this collectively both in public and behind the scenes, and we are very grateful that our concerns were heard and that action was taken to resolve this situation."

Hesse’s ceramic sculptures were due to be shown at the Great North Museum in Hancock. The Leeds-based arts group, Commoners Choir, and the musician Nadine Shah also pulled out. The multi-venue, 80-day exhibition also includes works by the Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, Antony Gormley and Ryan Gander, among others.

The organisers of the Great Exhibition of the North say that they “accepted and respected” BAE’s decision. BAE says in a statement that it has decided to “redirect our support to other initiatives better suited to both our skills and innovation objectives”, adding that it employs 18,000 people in the north of England. Other sponsors of the Great Exhibition of the North include Virgin Trains and Accenture.