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Fear of censorship fuels debate over cash from oil industry

Companies accused of dictating museums’ programmes in return for support

Activists are pressing art institutions to break ties with the fossil-fuel industry, due to concerns that energy companies are buying cultural cachet to detoxify their public image and that works or exhibitions critical of the industry are being censored.

The debate has developed more slowly in the US than in the UK, where activists from groups such as Liberate Tate and Platform have been staging anti-oil demonstrations for several years. This may be because US institutions are more dependent on private donations. “We have a legacy of big money coming from big energy” that dates back to the Rockefeller dynasty, says the New York-based artist Grayson Earle, who is part of the Illuminator, a light-graffiti collective.

This is beginning to change. Last September, protests broke out over a new plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which was funded by a $65m donation from the billionaire industrialist David Koch. Members of the Illuminator were arrested for projecting the words “Koch = climate chaos” on the side of the museum. (Three members were charged with illegal advertising, but a judge dismissed the case in November.)

Some are worried that sponsors connected to the fossil-fuel industry are shaping the content of exhibitions. In 2012, the then Wyoming state representative Thomas Lubnau was so offended by the artist Chris Drury’s burned-wood-and-coal sculpture Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around (2011), at the University of Wyoming Art Museum, that he told the university’s president he was considering drafting legislation to ensure that “no fossil-fuel-derived tax dollars find their way into the University of Wyoming’s funding stream”.

“Stab in the back”

“What kind of crap is this?” wrote Marion Loomis, the then executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, to another university official, calling the sculpture a “stab in the back”. The president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming sent an email to energy executives and major donors to the university, saying: “The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations, it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate. They always hide behind academic freedom but their policies and actions can change if they so choose.”

Susan Moldenhauer, the museum’s director, took the work down soon afterwards. Jeffrey Lockwood, a science professor at the university who is writing a book inspired by the debacle (Behind the Carbon Curtain, University of New Mexico Press, 2016), says that the removal of the work “makes sure folks know that an environmental artist cannot call the shots”.

Moldenhauer denies that sponsors have a say in exhibitions. She says: “We are happy that they support the arts.”

Is sponsorship worth it?

Some say that such risks outweigh the benefits of fossil-fuel-related sponsorship, which is often smaller than one might think. The Tate, compelled by the courts to disclose its funding figures, revealed in January that BP gives the institution between £150,000 and £330,000 a year—estimated to be just 0.5% of its annual operating income. At that rate, “these massive institutions can absolutely thrive without oil money”, says Mel Evans, the author of the recently published book Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts.

The numbers are often higher at US institutions, however. For example, the energy billionaires Fayez Sarofim and Richard Kinder donated a combined $120m to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston last year. “We are enormously grateful to all of the museum’s generous donors, none of whom have a say in the content of exhibitions or programming,” says a spokeswoman for the institution.

Critics say that institutions broke ties with tobacco and arms manufacturers in decades past and should now take an ethical stand against the fossil-fuel industry. “It seems archaic now, but tobacco advertising was formerly a part of normal life,” Evans says. As awareness of climate change grows, “the position of oil companies in our cultural lives will necessarily shift”, she adds.

So long as they maintain curatorial freedom, however, “arts organisations should take the money that is generously offered, and that means from the fossil-fuel industry and tobacco companies as well as arms manufacturers”, says the sociologist Tiffany Jenkins. “The sanctimonious calls for funding to be cut, from legitimate companies that only a minority of people disapprove of, do nothing to help the arts or to enrich all of our lives with culture.”

The debate looks set to heat up. “There is a national trend of universities and other non-profit organisations engaging in fossil-fuel divestment,” found a report by the American Alliance of Museums in February. It states: “Now might be a good time to discuss what investments are consonant or inconsistent with the museum’s mission and values.”