The UK National Portrait Gallery’s annual BP Portrait Award exhibition opens this week in London, marking the 25th year that the multinational oil giant has sponsored the competition. In critique of arts sponsorship as a way for polluting companies like BP to gain public credibility, Platform, an oil industry watchdog organization based out of London, released a report today entitled Picture This – A Portrait of 25 Years of BP Sponsorship, detailing BP’s abysmal track record of oil spills, explosions, worker deaths, corruption, and climate impacts since the start of the Portrait Award.
BP and other climate-destroying companies buy this legitimacy at an incredibly cheap price. This year, BP renewed its partnerships with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and Tate Britain for £10 million (less than $17 million) over the next three years – a pittance compared to the company’s $13.4 billion in profits in 2013, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in public relations spending that BP has undertaken to clean up its image since its 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and continues to wreak havoc on the region’s ecosystems.
Sponsorship of cultural institutions and the arts by multinational oil companies and climate change deniers is far from limited to BP in the UK. In 2008, David Koch, one of two notorious brothers at the head of Koch Industries, a company with major oil and gas pipeline and refining operations, donated $100 million over ten years for the New York City Ballet’s theater, which was renamed in his honor. In 2013 he made a $65 million donation to the New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the renovation of its plaza, which again was renamed in his honor. These donations might seem generous, until you realize that David Koch’s net worth is $41.7 billion – they do not make a dent in his accounts, amounting to just 0.4% of his fortune.
At the same time that some of New York City’s most renowned cultural institutions are heaping praise on David Koch for his contributions, he and his brother are simultaneously fueling a massive political machine of climate denial. They have poured tens of millions of dollars into organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Cato Institute that actively seek to undermine climate science and block any progress on climate policy, including the Obama Administration’s recently-proposed EPA greenhouse gas emission standards. The Koch brothers also funnel hundreds of millions of dollars of campaign contributions to elect climate deniers in both state and federal Congressional elections.
Other Big Oil companies are getting big credit for long-standing donations to symphony orchestras across the U.S. Chevron, one of the San Francisco Symphony’s major sponsors, is also the largest oil and gas producer in California. Houston, not surprisingly, is another hotbed for oil company contributions to the arts – ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips are both sponsors of the Houston Symphony.
The very public endorsement granted to these Big Oil companies by preeminent arts institutions allows them to whitewash their image, presenting themselves as generous philanthropic organizations and drawing attention away from the environmental destruction, climate denial, and massive influence over our political system that characterize their day-to-day operations. As Raoul Martinez, an artist shortlisted three times for the BP Portrait Award, expressed in the new Platform report:
“I fear that the acquiescence of the art world to destructive corporate interests drowns out the message of the art for which it provides a public platform. I realised long ago that, as a painter, offering legitimacy to fossil fuel corporations is a far more significant statement than anything that might be communicated by an exhibition.”