Emails reveal university ready to help BP clamp down on critics at City of Culture

As the University of Hull prepares to host the last in a series of BP-sponsored lectures tonight as part of Hull City of Culture, Culture Unstained has made public a series of damning emails which reveal that as pressure has mounted on BP’s sponsorship of the festival, the university – and members of the City of Culture team – have been willing to help BP contain the company’s critics. And appropriately, tonight’s final “BP Cultural Visions” lecture will be delivered by Director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, a museum that has faced controversy over its own oil sponsorship deals with BP, Shell and Statoil.

BP Sponsors Hull 2017

Back in 2015, it was announced that BP would become the first major corporate sponsor of Hull 2017 – UK City of Culture, just months after the company had pulled out of high-profile sponsorship deals with Tate and Edinburgh International Festival. It would provide an important opportunity for BP to boost its much tarnished brand, not just in the local area – but across the UK – as the media spotlight settled on the city for the coming year.

BP Cultural Visions

In a bid to capitalise on its sponsorship deal, BP partnered with the University of Hull in order to hold a series of lectures featuring respected artists and cultural figures, events shamelessly branded as the ‘BP Cultural Visions’ lecture series. Many of the speakers were drawn from BP-sponsored museums and galleries – such as the Royal Shakespeare Company or Royal Opera House – or had other links to the company in other ways, such as past winners of the BP Portrait Award. But in October, BP gave up any pretence of a genuine interest in the arts when it brazenly presented its own Vice President as a speaker alongside the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, with the City of Culture director Martin Green hosting. It was during the Q&A of that particular lecture that Martin Green decided that a legitimate question about BP’s record on climate change would not be answered, appearing to defend the company’s VP from reasonable scrutiny. (See video below.)

Damning emails

Through a Freedom of Information request made to the University of Hull, Culture Unstained has now uncovered a series of damning emails which reveal that as pressure mounted on BP’s sponsorship of the festival, the university and members of the City of Culture team had been willing to help BP clamp down on the company’s critics. The most concerning examples include…

  • When criticism of BP emerged on social media following one lecture, the university’s Press Officer attempted to contact staff at BP to see “whether they want us to get rid of the comments”. Subsequent lectures were not live-streamed on the university’s social media but videos later posted on BP’s website after the event.

Extract 1 - delete comments

  • Early in the year, BP’s Head of Arts & Culture, Des Violaris, urged staff at the City of Culture to create a special Q&A for speakers on how to deal with “awkward questions” about BP sponsorship.

Extract 2 - awkward questions

And when the larger briefing on the lecture series is discussed by a member of the City of Culture team, they explain how they have created a section on ‘activist activity’. They also make direct reference to BP’s ‘intelligence on activists’, raising questions about how the company monitors its critics.

Importantly though, the legitimate questions raised about the company’s business activity or the ethical appropriateness of its sponsorship, all came from members of the audience during the lectures’ allotted Q&A period.

Extract 4 - intelligence on activists

  • When the Huffington Post published a blog critical of BP sponsorship at the end of 2016, the BP’s Head of Arts & Culture advised the university to “have bag searches on the evening” and put the company’s security team in touch with the university. While it is not mentioned in the emails, police attended the next lecture with no apparent cause for them having been called.

Extract 3 - bag searches

  • And when making film clips of one lecture for BP, university staff offer to get sound bites from “the audience as long as it’s not the activist”.

Extract 5 - not the activist

An ongoing pattern

Back in 2016, Art Not Oil published an in-depth report on BP sponsorship of the arts. It included a series of emails outlining when members of security and senior staff at the museums and galleries the company sponsors had met with BP’s own security team to devise ways of containing the criticisms of peaceful arts activists. It also provided evidence of how BP uses its cultural sponsorship as part of a wider PR and lobbying strategy and, at times, attempted to influence the decisions of its ‘cultural partners’.

‘Nothing is neutral’ – Reflecting on the Museums Association’s Conference 2017

Chris Garrard, Co-director of Culture Unstained, headed to Manchester last week for this year’s Museums Association Conference. Here are his thoughts on just some of the debates and discussions that took place…

Climate change. The refugee crisis. Social inequality. Brexit. And of course, Trump. In her opening remarks, Director of the Museums Association (MA) Sharon Heal laid out these big social and political themes that would be the backdrop to the discussions and debates that would follow over the subsequent two days of the MA’s annual conference.

It was an unashamedly bold introduction that cited new trends in museums activism and promoted strong civic and democratic values. For example, when reflecting upon the misinformation spread around the Brexit vote, she argued that ‘I think we need to campaign to get our democracy back!’ For the most part, this year’s conference took forward the momentum of these opening remarks, something that also flowed through poet Lemn Sissay’s memorable opening keynote: a splicing of poetry, polemic, musings on his experience working with museums, and peppered with rallying cries to the sector – ‘Creativity is not the monopoly of artists!’

These “activist” energies took different forms across the many panels and sessions that followed, some more outspoken and others more reflective. One of the most powerful interventions though was situated right at the entrance to the conference’s exhibition hall: Museum Detox’s ‘White Privilege Clinic’. Over the two days of the conference, the network’s members guided hundred of delegates – one to one – through a white privilege test, offering space for each participant to reflect on their results and to ask questions. The emotional labour of such a powerful art activism and engagement project must have been huge – but its impact was clear. And the ripples are continuing to spread (check out the video below).

In a session exploring social polarisation post-Brexit, Alistair Hudson (Director of MIMA) and Esme Ward (Head of Learning & Engagement at Manchester Museum and The Whitworth), underscored the role of museums as ‘engines of civic engagement’. Alistair Hudson spoke about activity undertaken by MIMA which rejected ‘the false façade of neutrality’, such as the decision to hang a ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner outside the gallery, while accepting that not everyone in the local community would be supportive of such a statement or, at least not in this manner. In a similar vein, Esme Ward pointed out the importance of museums ‘doing more of our thinking in public’ and recognising that ‘there is nothing neutral [in museums], it is all political’. This desire to be socially engaged and open felt like a marked departure from the more closed and detached approach of the past – but an attitude that some museums still cling to.

In ‘Dissenting Voices’ – a session acting as a forerunner for the theme of next year’s conference in Belfast – Ronan McConnell (Tower Museum), Matt Turtle (Museum of Homelessness) and Jenny Mabbott (People’s History Museum) shared powerful examples of their work that straddle the line of dissent and “political action”. For Ronan McConnell, the act of simply engaging communities with a ‘challenging collection’ on protest/resistance as part of the ‘Speeches, Strikes and Struggles’ project was a bold step. Jenny Mabbott, though, highlighted how the People’s History Museum had shifted from being ‘a museum of campaigns’ to more of a ‘campaigning museum’, as those that worked there became more immersed in the content of their exhibitions and a commitment to the struggles of the communities they collaborate with (e.g. migrant rights). But it was the session’s Chair, Sara Wajid (Head of Interpretation, Birmingham Museums) who made perhaps the most perceptive observation, noting that while ‘museums are engaged in a process of “tidying”, political action is often messy’. It is this reality that many museums are now grappling with as they respond to a rapidly shifting social and political context. What are the narratives that can be woven through – or with – that “messiness”?

An ongoing struggle for the sector is to defend its value and significance not based on purely economic terms, a task that has been made much harder in the face of cuts to government funding. It was a concern that David Fleming (President of the MA) reflected in his comments at the MA’s AGM: ‘The Museums Association offers a vision of museums that is not dominated by commerciality’. In the session ‘Britain, Very Well Alone’, Charles Esche (Director of the Van Abbemuseum) spelt out the broader significance of not allowing commerciality to dominate the work of museums and the wider cultural sector. He described how ‘the colonial matrix of power is still reproducing itself’ and that, today, it is corporations that are largely driving that (neo)colonialism. In such a context, questions of funding, corporate sponsorship and consumption take on a different significance, and how they reflect and intersect with pre-existing systems of power. It was against that backdrop that he argued, ‘museums have an opportunity to tell the story around the decolonial’ – and that there is a need to do so explicitly, acknowledging how colonial origins have shaped many museums.

In some ways, these two threads came together in ‘Beliefs Trump Facts’, a session scrutinising the role of museums in an age of so-called ‘fake news’. The presentation of collections and the role of corporate sponsorship became central themes and therefore Ian Blatchford’s (Director of the Science Museum Group) citing of the Science Museum’s ‘Atmosphere’ exhibition as an effective exhibition on climate change though did seem out of place. (The Guardian reported in 2015 how Shell, who were sponsoring the exhibition, had attempted to influence its content.) Blatchford explained that he had previously highlighted to potential sponsors of the Science Museum that, ‘what you’re buying into is the impartiality and trust [of the Museum]’ and that it was not in either parties interest for this to be undermined. But the admission that a museum’s ‘impartiality and trust’ was up for sale – particularly in this context – felt concerning. The Science Museum is currently partnering with three oil companies – BP, Shell and Statoil – and in doing so, they gain a legitimacy through association with scientific research, despite having spread climate scepticism – or “fake news” – for many years. The journalist Matthew d’Ancona later noted that ‘post-truth is defined by our collusion in the lies’, a statement that took on an interesting resonance.

Nigel Lawson’s ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation’ (an organisation that has previously been funded by Natural History Museum donor, Sir Michael Hintze) was also highlighted in the discussion. But while Lawson’s more colourful spread of climate denial is easier to call out and challenge, the symbolic misinformation created by oil sponsorship is much more insidious. The panel discussed Lawson’s recent appearance on Radio 4’s Today Programme and how it demonstrated the pitfalls of attempting to present a balanced debate when, in reality, there might often be a clear consensus. It raised the question of how to create the space for contrasting views within a controversial debate (such as around homeopathy) but still contextualised by the research and trusted voice that the museum can offer – and also whether there is an ethical responsibility to do so.

It was the broadcaster and journalist Samira Ahmed who made the most incisive comments in this area. She noted that the creation and spreading of fake news is ‘often a backlash of the traditionally powerful’ in the face of a shift in values and attitudes. And while museums can offer the space to host debate, that ‘too often institutions are setting the terms of the debate’. Crucial to this, she highlighted that ‘older white men who think they’re impartial are the biggest problem’ within such institutions, determining which perspectives and voices are heard. It was also a theme David Olusoga picked up in his closing keynote, that ‘in terms of diversity and inclusivity, we [television and museums] have the same problems’.

These conversations and comments all served to underscore the power and value of Museum Detox’s intervention at the conference. Whether it is the ethics of corporate sponsorship or questions around subjectivity, they are debates that unfold in a space shaped both by the social shifts that had been so powerfully outlined by Sharon Heal at the outset, but also by pre-existing systems of privilege that unfold along lines of racism, colonialism and patriarchy. And, while there is a long way to go, there was a clear desire at the 2017 conference to recognise, respond to, and unpack these issues within the museum. There was also a renewed recognition that museums offer valuable spaces to engage the wider public in these conversations, as well as taking a more active role in shaping the shifts we need around social and political issues. As Francesca Martinez (comedian, activist and writer), a keynote speaker at the conference put it: ‘I often think politics follows culture, not the other way…’

New trustees and another £4m surplus for the RSC

rsc-annual-review-2016-17 front pageYesterday, the Royal Shakespeare Company held its Annual General Meeting. While it is not a public event, the company also published its 2016/17 Annual Review on the same day.

We were delighted to see that the RSC has had another great year, financially as well as artistically. For the fourth year running the incredible international success of Matilda the Musical has resulted in a surplus of £4 million, which the company is putting into a Strategic Investment Fund ‘for the development of long-term priorities, including key artistic projects’.

As we have highlighted before, one possible way for the RSC to transition away from its current relationship with BP would be to invest a small proportion of this surplus in financing £5 tickets for 16-25-year-olds in the short term, while longer-term solutions that preserve this vital scheme, without subjecting it to the unpredictable nature of corporate sponsorship, can be found.

The company has also added four new trustees to its Board:

Paapa Essiedu

Paapa Essiedu is one of the RSC’s new trustees

  • veteran RSC actor Simon Russell Beale, who recently played Prospero in the company’s extraordinary hi-tech production of the Tempest
  • Paapa Essiedu whose Hamlet wowed audiences and will be reprised on a national tour next year
  • Clare Reddington – Creative Director for Bristol’s Watershed
  • historian, educationalist, commentator and political author Sir Anthony Seldon

We hope that the new energy and fresh perspectives these trustees will bring to the board will help move the conversation around BP sponsorship forward.

 

Ethical fundraising is possible, despite what the RSC may claim

Today we are launching a new web resource on Ethical Sponsorship. Here’s why.

When unveiling the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Summer 2018 season recently, its Artistic Director Greg Doran seized the opportunity to defend the theatre company’s sponsorship deal with BP. According to iNews, Doran said that he ‘would not bow to Art Not Oil activists who are urging arts organisations to end their BP sponsorship’, because ‘without the patronage of BP, a “loyal supporter”, the RSC could not afford to distribute 62,500 £5 tickets to young theatregoers aged 16-25.’

The Guardian also relayed Doran’s view that BP’s money ‘was needed’. He added, ‘In the economy we are in it is very difficult to unpick what is “good” money… if you can answer me that question I’d be delighted.’ But it is precisely because arts organisations are under pressure that having clarity around ethics is essential, allowing the organisation to be confident about what it stands for.

In the RSC’s case, we have already highlighted how the claim that it ‘could not afford’ the £5 ticket scheme without oil money is disingenuous. The theatre company is receiving around £375,000 a year from BP, whilst making an annual surplus of around £4 million, largely thanks to the extraordinary success of Matilda the Musical. So it is misleading to imply that the financial pressures facing the RSC make ethical judgements impossible, or to suggest the £5 ticket scheme couldn’t exist without a sponsor, when in fact it was funded in-house prior to 2013.

As the RSC holds its Annual General Meeting tomorrow, we’re calling on the company’s management and trustees to consider the following:

  1. It’s both possible – and good practice – to apply ethics to fundraising

Doran may be correct that it’s difficult to identify ‘good’ money, but it’s not so hard to identify really ‘bad’ money. Would the RSC allow a tobacco, arms or pornography company to prominently sponsor its work? If not, then clearly an ethical line can be drawn, and fossil fuel companies are now widely viewed as being on the wrong side of that line.

OSF-logo-light-backgrd-large144px

In fact, several theatre companies and many other arts organisations, including the Royal Court, Arcola, ArtsAdmin and Red Ladder Theatre, have either explicitly incorporated ethics into their fundraising policies, or signed up to the Oil Sponsorship Free commitment never to take funding from fossil fuel companies.

2.  It’s clear what policies and processes need to look like

Funding and corporate sponsorship will always be a complex area for any arts organisation to navigate, but it is widely accepted that organisations should undertake a process of due diligence to research any major corporate partners they are considering, in order to weigh up any potential ethical conflicts or reputational risks.

By clarifying and recording its principles and values in advance, an organisation can then be equipped for when tricky situations arise, and have a clear process to work through, allowing staff to make decisions with confidence and in a way that is transparent, accountable and clear on where the ethical red lines lie. This is what is clearly laid out in guidance provided by the Charities Commission, the Institute of Fundraising and others.

For example, the RSC’s environmental policy contains a laudable commitment to ‘Maintaining a forward thinking, environmentally aware organisation that fulfils our social responsibility’. But these good intentions have not been incorporated into the RSC’s Donation and Sponsorship Acceptance Policy. This leaves a lack of clarity on how meaningful this commitment really is that has allowed the BP sponsorship deal to continue regardless. See our blog on this for a more detailed analysis.

So today we are launching a new web-based resource on ethical sponsorship. It aims to support arts organisations who are thinking about ethics, sponsorship and fundraising by signposting the most relevant advice, guides and examples of best practice. We hope it is useful, and encourage the RSC to look at how other organisations are addressing the urgent challenge of climate change in more comprehensive and consistent ways.

3. The movement against oil sponsorship is not a niche concern

Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance has said that he won’t work with the RSC until it ends its relationship with BP.

Greg Doran’s suggestion that oil sponsorship is only the concern of the Art Not Oil coalition ignores the fact that many theatre professionals are deeply uncomfortable with BP sponsorship. Supporters of the recently-launched Fossil Free £5 Tickets scheme, which provides an ethical alternative to RSC’s BP-sponsored scheme, include RSC Associate Artists Mark Rylance and Jasper Britton, and many other theatre stars including Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Garfield, Tamsin Greig, Phyllida Lloyd, Caryl Churchill, Max Stafford-Clark, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, Miriam Margolyes, Zoë Wanamaker and many more.

As the world has watched the terrible damage wreaked by successive record-breaking hurricanes in recent weeks, it’s clear that climate change is no longer a ‘niche’ concern that high-profile organisations can choose to disregard. If you are moved by the suffering you see, you then must look to your own organisation and ensure it is doing all it can to be part of the solution. Continuing to promote BP and associate it with your highly-respected brand puts the RSC firmly in the ‘part of the problem’ camp.

WeHelp us pull the plug hope that BP sponsorship is on the agenda at the RSC tomorrow, and that the trustees and management accept that complexity is no excuse for not getting to grips with the ethical dimensions of fundraising. Indeed, given our now rapidly warming climate, ending the relationship with BP is more urgent than ever.

Did The Times censor criticism of BP?

UPDATE: we have been in touch with The Times who claim that the two different versions resulted from the late addition of the line about BP – not its removal. We have therefore asked them to add the missing line or delete the old version in order to bring the article in line with what they published in their paper edition, but have so far not had a response.

It looks like it.

Today’s Times contains a glowing 5-star review of the British Museum’s new Scythians exhibition, due to open to the public tomorrow. The original review by Rachel Campbell-Johnson, which appears in today’s print version of the newspaper, contained a rather embarrassing phrase in its first paragraph:

“although, according to a party of vociferous protesters yesterday, the choice of BP as the exhibition’s sponsor was ill advised”

Photo of Times with paragraph marked

This refers to a fantastically cheeky performance intervention by the activist theatre troupe BP or not BP?, who posed as BP staff at the exhibition’s press launch yesterday, and the museum were no doubt highly irritated by the mention of the controversy around their sponsor in an otherwise fabulous review.

Then things get seriously dodgy.

The original version of the review can no longer be found via the Times website. Instead, it sends you to a new version, which is identical except that the phrase mentioning BP protesters is now missing. It is this edited version – devoid of criticism of its sponsor – that has been shared enthusiastically by the British Museum.

Edited text screenshot

Intriguingly, the original version can still be seen online. We’ve screenshotted it in case it disappears.

Screenshot of original review

This looks like blatant censorship of Rachel Campbell-Johnson’s review, and is incredibly dubious editorial practice. It’s hard to imagine why it would have happened unless either the British Museum (already embroiled in a racism row today) or BP had objected to the original, contacted the Times and persuaded them to change it.

If this sounds unlikely, take a look at the British Museum’s communications strategy for the Scythians exhibition, which Culture Unstained have obtained through Freedom of Information requests. This document shows how proactively the British Museum press office tries to manage positive profile for BP. According to their “Strategy to maximise sponsor credits”: “The press office will request sponsor credits are included with all journalists and editors they are in direct contact with, including follow-up reminders where possible.”

Of course, it’s equally possible that BP itself pushed for this change – no doubt they are an important source of advertising revenue for the Times, and have friends in high places at the newspaper.

Either way, this is censorship of legitimate and widespread concerns that BP is an inappropriate sponsor for a cultural institution, due to its continued extraction of fossil fuels, lobbying against effective climate legislation and collusion with human-rights abusing regimes around the world. The choice of BP as sponsor for the Scythians exhibition is particularly ironic, as the future of Scythian archaeology is being directly threatened by climate change. Hundreds of unexcavated Scythian graves in the Altai mountains are under threat from melting permafrost, and archaeologists say it is a race against time before much of the region’s incredible cultural heritage simply rots away.

If the Times editors have any other explanation for this seemingly highly political edit, we are eager to hear it. Otherwise, this looks like the British Museum or BP going to ever more extreme lengths to cover up criticism of the oil company’s true nature.

Revealed: the RSC’s new sponsorship rules

As Hurricane Harvey’s trail of destruction dominates the media, the urgent need to reduce global fossil fuel emissions has, once again, been made tragically and terrifyingly clear. It’s our responsibility to look to our own organisations – whatever their purpose – and ask: ‘Are we doing what we can to tackle climate change?’

In the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Since 2012 it has been working in partnership with the 11th biggest corporate contributor to climate change the world has ever seen: BP. It is a company whose dogged commitment to extracting massive new sources of fossil fuels decades into the future is a serious stumbling block to curbing the climate crisis. The RSC has been accepting the oil giant’s money in return for profile and branding since 2012, first by sponsoring the World Shakespeare Festival, and now marketing ‘BP £5 tickets’ to 16-25 year-olds.

Then last Friday, as Harvey was gathering its terrible strength over the Gulf of Mexico, and the worst flooding in years was hitting India, Bangladesh and Nepal, killing over 1,200 people and leaving millions homeless, a new Donation and Sponsorship Acceptance Policy appeared for the first time on the RSC’s website.

Culture Unstained approached the RSC several weeks ago and asked if the theatre company would share their policies in this area with us, so were really pleased to see this shared publicly. However, it makes for a disappointing read, especially against the current backdrop of climate disaster around the world.

Tempest

Raising real-life tempests: the RSC allows climate polluter BP to sponsor its work, such as this recent hi-tech production of the Tempest starring Simon Russell-Beale

Forward thinking

Several weeks ago the RSC shared with us their environmental policy, which sets out their commitments on pollution mitigation, energy consumption, waste management and transport. It also contains a very positive commitment to ‘Maintaining a forward thinking, environmentally aware organisation that fulfils our social responsibility’. But sadly, these good intentions do not seem to have been incorporated into the RSC’s sponsorship policy in any visible way.

The newly public sponsorship policy starts by reminding us that ‘Each year, we have to raise an increasing amount of our income from donations and sponsorship to support our work and to fund major capital projects.’ Of course, this is true for arts organisations across the UK. But reading this you could be forgiven for assuming that donations and sponsorship make up a major part of the RSC’s income. They don’t.

In fact, fundraising brings in only 3.7% of the RSC’s annual income – and almost half of that money is spent on the costs of raising it. Meanwhile, over 70% of the RSC’s income of £81.3 million last year came from ticket sales and other trading, and since 2014 the company has been making a more-than-healthy surplus of £4 million per year, in part from the incredible ongoing success of Matilda the Musical. They are certainly not in a position where to refuse a donation on ethical grounds would put the future of the company in jeopardy.

Considering that BP’s contribution to the RSC has been estimated (based on BP’s own figures) at around £375,000 per year – less than 0.5% of the RSC’s income, and less than a tenth of its annual surplus in recent years, the ‘we need the money’ argument comes across as a little disingenuous.

Credibility and integrity

The policy then sets out the three principles by which all potential donations and sponsorship arrangements are assessed. Do they:

  1. support the charitable objectives of the RSC
  2. reflect the integrity of the RSC
  3. not influence the RSC’s artistic decisions

These are all important but the second one is perhaps most pertinent here. If the RSC says it is committed to being forward-thinking, environmentally aware and sustainable, but then takes money from BP, it surely makes a nonsense of this commitment and damages the RSC’s credibility in the process.

The policy then goes into great detail about the process of how decisions are made. But it has nothing at all to say about ethics. How are controversial sponsors investigated? Against which standards or values are they weighed? All the policy states is that where there is ‘concern’ they will ‘undertake due diligence to establish the legitimacy of the donation or sponsorship…’  But does that due diligence process include investigating a company like BP’s environmental and human rights impacts? There is nothing in the policy to suggest that it should. It is loopholes and woolly definitions like these which left the RSC with the wiggle room to renew its sponsorship deal with the oil company last year. If you are an organisation that is confident in its ethical standards, then you don’t need to give yourself a ‘get out clause’ like this.

Cherri quote

The Gulf Coast, battered by Hurricane Harvey, is still recovering from BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill whose impacts on health, livelihoods and wildlife are still being felt today.

Compare this to the Royal Court’s environmental policy, which explicitly states that its scope includes fundraising, and that the theatre ‘will aspire to take an ethical approach to fundraising whenever possible and appropriate, working with those who share our environmental and ethical values.’ Unlike the RSC, these values are stated explicitly on the theatre’s website.

Why can’t the RSC take a similarly transparent approach? The ethics of fundraising will always be complex and require deliberation and value judgements, but it is the responsibility of every high-profile, well-respected organisation – especially those in receipt of significant amounts of public funding – to avoid associating themselves with companies that are doing great damage in the world. If they don’t, they become complicit in that damage, and taxpayers’ funding also becomes tarnished by the promotion of these damaging activities. So having clear ethical guidance with which to exercise judgement about any potential donor is an absolute necessity.

The tide is turning

The RSC’s donations policy goes on to state that ‘The Board takes ultimate responsibility for accepting or refusing a donation or sponsorship. It is their responsibility to act in the best interest of the Charity when accepting gifts.’ That’s where the buck stops. We would argue that the Board are failing to act in the best interest of the RSC by continuing to accept funds from BP. And we are not alone.

Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance has said that he won’t work with the RSC until it ends its relationship with BP, despite being an RSC Associate Artist

Many well-respected theatre professionals have leant their support to an alternative, ethical crowdfunded ticket scheme to support young people’s access to the RSC: Fossil Free £5 Tickets. The list includes Mark Rylance (who is an RSC Associate Artist and has regularly spoken out against oil sponsorship of the RSC), Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Garfield, Tamsin Greig, Caryl Churchill, Max Stafford-Clark, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, Miriam Margolyes, Zoë Wanamaker, Phyllida Lloyd, Vivienne Westwood, Jasper Britton (also an Associate Artist), Margot Leicester, Moira Buffini, Timberlake Wertenbaker, April de Angelis, Sam Pritchard and Anders Lustgarten.

Theatre critic Lyn Gardner has also argued persuasively that ‘when theatres and arts organisations sacrifice principles for pragmatism and short-term gain, they risk much longer-lasting damage, including compromising artists and leading audiences to question the discrepancy between the work they see on an organisation’s stages and the sponsorship deals it is willing to make.’

The tide is clearly turning against oil sponsorship. Both Tate and Edinburgh International Festival parted company with BP last year, after decades-long relationships, following pressure from the internationally-growing movement for Fossil Free Culture.

Which brings us to the final section of the RSC’s donations policy: refusal. There are no stated circumstances under which a donation could be refused. But such a circumstance is allowed for. And if sufficiently concerned, the Board can seek the support of the Charity Commission. If a donation or sponsorship is refused, a careful record must be kept. So the RSC has decided that it should be possible to say no. But without its ethical principles clearly laid out, how does the RSC expect its staff or Board to make such a judgment?

All in all, it’s a disappointingly vague document. But it’s a start, a first step on the road to transparency and accountability on an issue that has the potential to do the RSC’s reputation significant damage. Now we would like to see the RSC flesh out this policy, align it with its environmental policy and take proper note of the context in which it is making these decisions. After all, no money is given in an ethical vacuum.

Then we urge the Board to fully review the RSC’s relationship with BP, which cannot be allowed to continue much further into a future where the shocking scenes from Houston to Mumbai risk becoming tragically commonplace.

 

The Myth of acceptable oil sponsorship

The RSC takes irony to a new level, publicly defending BP sponsorship while championing a play about the disastrous consequences of ignoring climate change

“Are there any other questions? About… something else?”

This was the none-too-subtle way in which the RSC’s Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman shifted Saturday’s public discussion session – “Why are we not acting on our understanding of the climate crisis?” – away from the issue of the company’s controversial BP sponsorship and onto more comfortable territory.

TAndy quotehe talk was taking place, appropriately enough, before a showing of Kirsty Housley and Matt Hartley’s shocking new play Myth at the RSC’s Other Place. The play explores our tendency to ignore the uncomfortable topic of climate change, and carry on as if nothing is happening, even when the evidence comes crashing in on all sides. The fact that the RSC is essentially doing exactly that by helping to promote one of the companies most responsible for this climate crisis through its £5 ticket scheme for 16 to 25-year-olds, is deeply problematic, and the irony of the situation was thrown into relief by this event.

After 40 minutes of hearing the panel discuss the urgency of the climate crisis and the role of the arts in persuading people to engage meaningfully with the issue, I was the first to ask a question: “A lot of people were surprised and upset last year when the RSC signed a 5-year sponsorship deal with BP; it doesn’t seem to fit that the RSC would choose to ally itself with an incredibly polluting company that’s also impacting on human rights around the world.” I went on to ask the panel: “How should the RSC navigate the need to find sources of funding, in the context of cuts, whilst at the same time genuinely doing your bit on climate change and making sure you’re not inadvertently being part of the problem?”

Mark Rylance comment on crowdfunder

Mark Rylance, Jasper Britton and other theatre professionals have donated to Fossil Free £5 Tickets, an ethical alternative to the BP £5 Ticket scheme

Erica’s explanation of the RSC’s situation toed the familiar party line, as one might expect: “We don’t have another option other than to have a mixed set of funding…about 70% of our income comes from sources beyond our public funding, and that leaves us in a situation where we believe that corporate sponsorship has to be part of that picture.” Talking specifically about BP, she put forth the perhaps more personally-held view that “pretty much all sources of money will have some involvement in contributing to [climate change]. So it doesn’t seem to me as straightforward as saying that there’s one source that’s better or worse.”

After comments from the rest of the panel, she firmly moved the discussion on to other topics, citing the limited time available, before I or my companion – a climate change author and carbon footprint expert – could respond to the issues she raised.

This meant that we weren’t able to point out that corporate sponsorship and philanthropy makes up only 3.7% of the RSC’s annual income, and almost half of that money is spent on the costs of raising it.  Over 70% of the RSC’s income is from ticket sales and other trading income. Since 2014, this has included a surplus profit of over £4 million per year, in part from the incredible ongoing success of Matilda the Musical, which has been transferred into a “Strategic Investment Fund”. BP’s contribution has been estimated at around £375,000 per year – less than 0.5% of the RSC’s income, and less than a tenth of its annual surplus. Of course, there is a lot we don’t know about the RSC’s finances, but I believe it is worth asking the question: if the RSC wishes to strategically invest in building its future audience through a young people’s ticket scheme, could it draw on its surplus in the short-term to transition away from its reliance on a company that is directly threatening those same young people’s futures?

Help us pull the plug

We also didn’t get the chance to explain that while of course there are ethical issues surrounding many sponsors, fossil fuel companies like BP are increasingly regarded as beyond the pale, consigned to the ‘untouchable’ corner alongside arms and tobacco manufacturers. BP’s sponsorship deals with Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival both ended last year, and hundreds of artists and arts institutions – including the Royal Court – have signed up to a public commitment to never directly take fossil fuel money. There are clear reasons for this: the urgency of the climate crisis, and the active and direct role that companies like BP play in making it worse, both by lobbying to weaken climate legislation and block renewable energy, and by charging ahead with extracting ever-riskier and more carbon-intensive sources of fossil fuel just at the point where we need to rapidly transition away from them.

Finally, we didn’t get to ask what kind of ethical scrutiny had been applied to the sponsorship decision. Did the RSC know that BP is one of the biggest lobbyists against European climate action; that it funds climate change-denying politicians while pushing for massive new pipelines across North America and Europe; that is works closely with, and benefits from, repressive governments in Egypt, Azerbaijan and Indonesia? Was the RSC aware of these facts and agreed to publicly align itself with BP anyway, or did it simply fail to do its homework on these issues?

Benny quote

Other members of the panel did raise concerns. Lucy Latham, from sustainable arts charity Julie’s Bicycle, said: “Julie’s Bicycle thoroughly advocates for a fossil-free arts and culture, but as Erica said it is challenging. We’re certainly not going around saying it’s easy to replace pots of money when we know that arts and culture is being de-funded. What we are advocating is for cultural organisations to start engaging with the topic, and thinking about what their strategy could be to transition to a financial makeup that does not include direct fossil fuel money… The first step is organisations having a transparent and publicly accessible policy on ethical sponsorship.”

Matt Hartley and Kirsty Housley, the writer and writer/director of Myth, both expressed their discomfort at BP branding, especially for tickets to this particular play. Kirsty was quick to point out that she’d felt no pressure from the RSC to censor the content of Myth to please their sponsor, but she also warned: “As self-employed theatre-makers, whose income is precarious, there’s a massive amount of self-censorship” with regard to raising ethical concerns about sponsors. Mark Ravenhill has gone as far as to identify a “climate of fear” among theatre professionals who dare not criticise donors like BP.

But artistic freedom and self-censorship is only one part of this debate. As Lyn Gardner said in her debut blog for The Stage last week, “When theatres and arts organisations sacrifice principles for pragmatism and short-term gain, they risk much longer-lasting damage, including compromising artists and leading audiences to question the discrepancy between the work they see on an organisation’s stages and the sponsorship deals it is willing to make.”

This is why, in partnership with young theatre-goers and theatre professionals, we’re crowdfunding our own alternative Fossil Free £5 tickets for 16-25 year olds. Our new scheme – which gives young people access to affordable RSC tickets without needing to promote BP in the process – is endorsed by Mark Rylance, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Garfield, Emma Thompson, Tamsin Greig, Caryl Churchill, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, Miriam Margolyes, Zoë Wanamaker, Vivienne Westwood, Max Stafford-Clark, Jasper Britton and many other theatre professionals. You can learn more, donate to the scheme or request Fossil Free £5 Tickets here.

Emma quote

Maybe we’re all in denial about climate change, but by branding tickets for young people to see this play with a BP logo, the RSC is looking painfully hypocritical. I’ve now spoken about this with audience-members leaving Myth on two occasions. Many have done a double-take when I’ve told them that the organisation behind this unflinching production is sponsored by an oil company. It’s hard to see how the RSC can maintain its deeply conflicted position for much longer.

If you love the RSC, but not BP, please consider donating to Fossil Free £5 Tickets and supporting a positive alternative to oil sponsorship: https://gofundme.com/fossilfreetix