In a major win for the campaign against oil sponsorship, the long-running relationships between oil and gas giant Shell and its neighbours the Southbank Centre and the British Film Institute (BFI) are to come to an end this year. Both institutions have confirmed to the Guardian that their existing corporate memberships with the company will not be renewed.
The news follows the National Theatre’s decision last October to cut its own ties to the fossil fuel company at the same time as declaring a climate emergency. This means that the whole of London’s South Bank area – where Shell’s UK headquarters is also located – will finally be free of oil sponsorship.
While the institutions have said publicly that the decision not to renew was taken by Shell, the move follows growing pressure from arts workers and campaigners. Increasingly high-profile criticism of oil sponsorship that has meant oil companies’ use of cultural partnerships to boost their ‘social license to operate’ is no longer working, and perhaps doing them more harm than good. As the memberships cost Shell just £20k – the equivalent of loose change for one of the world’s biggest companies – it is hard to imagine any other reason for the contracts to come to an end than the reputational damage they would continue to cause both the company and the arts organisations.
The news comes as the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Science Museum Group and Royal Opera House face intensifying opposition to their oil sponsorship deals against the backdrop of the growing climate emergency. Last year, the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Edinburgh Science Festival and National Galleries Scotland all ended financial relationships with fossil fuel companies citing their obligations to act in the face of the climate crisis.
Dr Chris Garrard, Co-Director of Culture Unstained, commented:
“From its HQ on the South Bank, Shell has pursued a business plan that has trampled Indigenous peoples’ rights and pushed the world deeper into climate crisis, while sponsoring its cultural neighbours in a cynical attempt to deflect attention from the damage it was causing.
But with mounting pressure from artists, workers and the public, these relationships have stopped helping Shell launder its image and instead shone a spotlight on its climate crashing activities. Until it commits to leaving fossil fuels in the ground this decade, Shell will be standing in the way of the zero carbon transition we urgently need and should not be welcomed into our arts spaces.”
The Southbank Centre has long faced opposition to its partnership with Shell, including a string of musical protests by the activist choir Shell Out Sounds, a damning open letter from leading artists coordinated by the organisation Platform and, more recently, a vigil to commemorate the Ogoni Nine followed by a guerrilla projection of a Shell ‘hell’ logo onto the Royal Festival Hall. See below for more detail on the 14-year relationship.
At the same time, staff from cultural institutions along the South Bank have been mobilising together with actors and artists to support the youth climate strikes and call for stronger climate action from arts organisations. Seemingly in response to the growing pressure and scrutiny, the Southbank Centre confirmed that Shell will not renew its corporate membership and the company’s logos have disappeared from screens throughout the Centre’s spaces, though the oil giant is currently still listed on its ‘Our Partners’ page.
Shell has also been a corporate member of the BFI for several years. However, the BFI recently published a ‘climate emergency declaration’, joining the fast-growing ‘Culture Declares Emergency‘ movement of cultural organisations stepping up their response to the climate crisis. It has also confirmed that Shell will not renew its membership this year. Harriet Finney, Director of External Affairs for the BFI, commented:
“The BFI is committed to supporting a sustainable future, and we are in the process of reviewing the impact of our own activities across all our sites; how we can better support the UK’s screen industries to move towards sustainable practice and how we respond culturally to the climate and ecological emergency.”
The news was welcomed by leading tenor Mark Padmore who will perform at the Royal Festival Hall this coming October:
“I am delighted with the news that the Southbank, as well as the BFI, are no longer to be associated with Shell. Today, more than ever, we all need to examine our way of life and the implications of our actions, as we respond to the growing climate emergency. Making beautiful music does not excuse us from seeking to understand how our work is funded and asking questions about the kind of unsustainable businesses those partnerships might promote.”
The news of Shell’s exit was also welcomed by Lazarus Tamana, European spokesperson for Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), who was friends with Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Indigenous Ogoni poet and playwright executed by the Nigerian state for his peaceful opposition to Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta, alongside eight other indigenous activists, almost 25 years ago. He said:
“We at The Movement For The Survival Of The Ogoni People (MOSOP) are delighted that at last, the Southbank Centre and the British Film Institute will not be working with Shell any more. The tide has turned and Shell knows that its logo is not something to be proud of but a stain that tarnishes these institutions.
The planet is in crisis and the Ogoni people are still suffering from Shell’s oil spills and collusion in violence against us, for which it is facing legal action. For the sake of justice and the climate, we must start leaving oil in the ground around the world. We now call on other institutions like Cambridge University not to wait but urgently divest from Shell.”
In 2018, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam as well as two major museums in the Hague ended their Shell sponsorship deals following pressure from artists and activists, while in the UK, Shell’s partnerships with the National Gallery and London Symphony Orchestra have ended in recent years, with the National Theatre cutting its ties to Shell last October.
The small number of arts organisations that still have high-profile oil sponsorship deals, particularly the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Science Museum Group and Royal Opera House, continue to come under significant pressure from protesters, staff, artists and even their own trustees.
Last month activist theatre group BP or not BP? occupied the British Museum for three successive days, sneaking a giant Trojan horse into the courtyard, taking over the museum with a mass action involving 1500 participants, and staying overnight to create a powerful artwork entitled ‘Monument’. In an unprecedented move, staff at the museum and former trustee Ahdaf Soueif published a statement in support of the protests the following day.
Background: Shell and its cultural sponsorship
While BP has lately been in the spotlight for its controversial sponsorship deals, Shell is also being progressively pushed out of the cultural sector.
The Southbank Centre’s relationship with Shell began in 2006 when the oil giant donated to the refurbishment of the UK’s largest arts centre. The following year, the company became the sponsor of the institution’s series of classical concerts, ‘Shell Classic International’. In response, there were a series of musical protests by activist choir Shell Out Sounds both inside and outside Shell-sponsored concerts, an intervention by author Margaret Atwood during an appearance at the Southbank Centre and a letter from leading artists and campaigners calling for an end to the sponsorship, coordinated by the organisation Platform. Shell’s sponsorship of the series was dropped in 2014 but the firm had remained a corporate partner since.
In the last few months, the partnership has again been the focus of protests, including staff walking out in support of the youth strikers, a vigil to commemorate the Ogoni 9 – executed in the Niger Delta for their opposition to Shell – and a guerrilla projection of a Shell ‘hell’ logo onto the Royal Festival Hall.
Shell’s record in Nigeria continues to be highly controversial. The company has been repeatedly accused of complicity in the murders of the Ogoni Nine, and the Ogoni people continue to suffer from the pollution of their lands and water by oil spilled from Shell’s pipelines. This month, a court in The Hague will hear witness statements in the Kiobel versus Shell case brought by four women who accuse Shell of complicity in the unlawful arrest, detention and execution of their husbands by the Nigerian military in 1995.
In 2014, Shell Out Sounds raised the funds to dedicate a seat in the Royal Festival Hall to Saro-Wiwa as part of their campaign against Shell sponsorship. Seat KK43 remains dedicated to him today. Shell continues to be mired in a major court case in Italy, along with Italian oil firm Eni, over its alleged involvement in a corrupt oil deal in Nigeria.
Shell’s cultural sponsorship hit the headlines in 2015 when internal emails revealed that it had attempted to influence the Science Museum’s climate science exhibition ‘Atmosphere’ which it was sponsoring. In 2018, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam as well as two major museums in the Hague ended their Shell sponsorship deals following pressure from artists and activists, while in the UK, Shell’s partnerships with the National Gallery and London Symphony Orchestra ended in recent years, with the National Theatre also cutting its ties to Shell last October.