Oil is Thicker than Canvas

asks whether it’s really ethical for multinational corporations to sponsor art galleries?

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On Monday 22nd April, a small group of protesters, equipped with hand-held video cameras, walked around the Tate whispering small sections of the court transcript from BP’s Deepwater Horizon trial, which they recorded. Their presence as political activists was virtually undetectable, and yet this is an annual event: a stance against BP’s continuing sponsorship of the Tate gallery. By chance, or well-timed coincidence it would seem, on the 24th April, Maria Miller (the Conservative Culture Secretary) made a speech which encouraged the art world to evaluate its economic value, and to assess itself based on economic output rather than artistic merit. These two entities have inadvertently pitted themselves against one another in a ‘cold war’ of ideology. The conservative capitalists and the small group of liberal idealists have been firing politically-laden, policy-missiles indirectly into each other’s spheres of influence.

On the one hand, the liberals have every right to protest against the public image of BP. Their track record as do-gooders for society is less than negligible, in fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that their public image is one of destruction, exploitation and natural carelessness. The image of corporate irresponsibility is not one which the protesters want art to be ‘tarred’ with (if you’ll excuse the pun). In much the same way that fans were outraged by McDonalds sponsoring the 2012 Olympics, the idea that the Tate might be linked to a company which caused an unprecedented level of natural damage is, for many, a distasteful image. Yet their protest begs the question: what alternative are they suggesting? If the Tate, and every other gallery which relies on a network of donations, were to source their income from elsewhere, under the current funding, either the Arts Council would be unable to support vast network of galleries (resulting in closure), or the Arts Council would expand exponentially, depriving other government sectors of much needed funds.

This is where Ms Miller’s ideas play into force. The art world must find a means to expand their economic potential. Of course, a simply superb idea: in order to minimise government input into a sector which can only ever contribute to society on a qualitative basis (and who wants qualitative when you can have quantitative?!), why not let it fund itself? Sadly Miller’s ball-bustingly conservative idea is conveniently neglecting to consider the most basic understanding of art. Art primarily exists for itself, and galleries are effectively the home of creative catharsis. Commercialising art is almost a contradiction in terms, or at least, would result in the creation of something which would act as a polar opposite to art: a product. Ms Miller is right to suggest that the Arts Council (and most government departments) must cut their budgets in order to aid the ailing economy, but to suggest that the art world has the capacity to be economically self-sufficient is narrow-minded. So what are independent galleries to do? Look for sponsorship from willing corporations? Hang on just a second…

The little bit of the Venn Diagram where art and economics intersect will perpetually remain a catch-22. Relying on sponsorship from exterior companies will inextricably link the company and the art, yet, incumbent with financial freedom is the creative freedom for art to exist for itself. Art and economics were two entities that were never designed to be mixed, and yet art remains dependent on the deeply politicised economic game.

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