Just over a week ago, controversy erupted when high-profile artists and performers began pulling out of the ‘Great Exhibition of the North 2018’ after they discovered that the event was being sponsored by the controversial arms manufacturer, BAE Systems. Now, as the negative publicity showed no signs of going away, BAE Systems have announced they are pulling out.
The event’s organisers had badly misjudged the public mood and underestimated the steps artists were willing to take to stop their work from being used to ‘artwash’ unethical companies. Once BAE Systems’ cynical sponsorship had been exposed and opposed, the turnaround took just a week. And while it is being reported that BAE Systems has decided to ‘redirect its support’, the organisers were perhaps also seeking a face-saving solution to the controversy they had created.
So, what were some of the reasons behind this rapid win for the artists involved? And what can other artists – and arts organisations – learn from it? Here are just six reasons that might have played a part…
- Failing to be accountable and consult your artists
All too often, large-scale events and exhibitions that have taken months (or years) to plan are launched with a fanfare and accompanied by widespread media coverage, but at no point in the planning process have the artists involved been asked if they are comfortable having their work branded by certain corporate sponsors. And when those corporate sponsors are revealed to be an arms or oil company, the artists involved can find themselves unexpectedly legitimising an industry that they profoundly disapprove of. So, rather than properly grapple with the ethical issues surrounding the proposed sponsor, the organisers defer the dilemma to the artists, who are then forced to decide between upholding their values or sharing their work.
This is exactly what happened with the Great Exhibition of the North 2018. The broadcaster Lauren Laverne – who had been invited to curate a whole series of events – was only made aware of BAE Systems sponsorship after the event had been launched. The same was true for many of the other artists. Once this lack of accountability and trust is exposed, it is extremely difficult to repair, and attempting to negotiate a solution becomes much more complex.
Back in 2015, the British Museum did much the same. Despite having taken months to consult with Indigenous communities in Australia for its ‘Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation’ exhibition, they failed to ask many of them (whose objects would be on display in the exhibition) whether they consented to BP’s sponsorship of the exhibition.
2. Underestimating the strength of feeling among artists
The clear strength of feeling and opposition to BAE Systems sponsorship meant that events moved quickly. Musician, campaigner and presenter Nadine Shah was among the first to pull out over the company’s role as a ‘principal partner’, alongside the Commoners Choir. They made their positions clear on Twitter and called on other artists to follow suit.
Meanwhile, Paul Smith (of Maximo Park) and the Unthanks entered into discussions with the organisers in the hope of finding a way to go ahead with their performances but minus the toxic branding of BAE Systems.
The Unthanks issued a strong statement on Twitter that reflected their concerns but also their desire to find a way through the situation.
“We aim not to let down ticket holders and the staff that worked hard to organise the shows we and others are involved in, and if the sponsor cannot be removed from the exhibition, we aim to stage them anyway, independently. We are prepared then to pull out if nothing changes, but not until we do our utmost to affect change.”
– The Unthanks
From the outset, these artists set out their clear ethical red lines which left the organisers with a limited set of options, and none of them involved BAE Systems playing a central role.
3. Artists mobilising rapidly and engaging others
While the organisers might have been hoping that the controversy would eventually die down, it only showed signs of intensifying. On Tuesday, ‘Art Not Arms’ was launched, a new collective of artists and cultural workers who issued a set of five clear ‘calls to action’.
While their main focus was BAE Systems sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North, they also called for ‘the end of unethical arts sponsorships and partnerships’. This call signalled alignment with a much bigger movement for ethical funding of the arts – and one that isn’t going away. Last week, the group had also launched an online petition which, by the time BAE Systems had pulled out, had received several thousand signatures.
4. Out-of-step sponsorship exposed as Saudi Prince visits the UK
The controversy surrounding BAE Systems has been mounting for some time, thanks to the tireless campaigning of groups such as Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Stop the Arms Fair and Amnesty International. The revelations about the company’s sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North emerged a matter of days before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was to visit the UK. The spotlight on the UK’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia – many of which are being used in the conflict in Yemen – would only get brighter. And the Prince’s visit would also draw renewed attention to BAE Systems involvement in Saudi Arabia.
With the role of arms deals with Saudi Arabia already high on the news agenda, the cynical motives behind BAE Systems sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North were all too plain to see.
5. A lack of due diligence by the organisers
The Code of Fundraising Practice states that:
‘Organisations MUST carry out a process of due diligence, proportionate to the scale of the relationship, before engaging in a partnership.’
For the organisers of the Great Exhibition of the North to sign a deal with BAE Systems to not just sponsor the event but become a ‘principal partner’ (whose logo would emblazon all major publicity materials), they would have needed to conduct a careful process of due diligence checks. The organisers would need to have carefully assessed the risks posed by a relationship with a major arms company and understood the claims that have been made against the company.
It is at this point that concerns should have been raised, the claims against BAE Systems taken seriously, and a wider pool of those involved in the event consulted. To sign-off on a partnership that was so out-of-step with the views of the artists involved and also the public is an indication that this process of due diligence wasn’t up to scratch – or perhaps didn’t happen in any meaningful way at all.
6. A shifting consensus across the cultural sector
In recent years, the debate around ethical sponsorship has only been growing, and oil and arms sponsorship deals have been subjected to sustained scrutiny by artists and activists. In 2016, BP pulled out of sponsoring Tate after 26 years following a sustained campaign of artistic interventions and high-profile actions. Meanwhile, the British Museum has faced a relentless campaign against its BP sponsorship deal which shows no signs of stopping.
And in 2012, protests against the arms company Finmeccanica forced it to end its sponsorship of the National Gallery a year earlier than planned. And the Campaign Against the Arms Trade continues to put pressure on the Science Museum and London Transport Museum over their close ties to arms companies.
Once upon a time, the logos of oil, arms and tobacco companies were peppered throughout the UK’s cultural institutions. Now, they are rapidly disappearing as artists and audiences hold their cultural institutions to account. The Great Exhibition of the North’s deal with BAE Systems is the latest unethical partnership to topple, and more rapidly than most. Who knows what ripples will now flow from this impressive win by a group of committed artists…