Photo: Jeff Blackler

“There is no money that is completely pure”, so says Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate gallery in London that is under fire once again for taking oil money from BP and Shell.

Serota is right in many ways, there is no such thing as clean money but some funding is dirtier than others.

And galleries such as the Tate don’t have to take dirty oil money. But they do. And they carry on on taking it even when the oil companies are involved in some of the most devastating environmental crimes of our age.

Cast your mind back to May last year, when BP’s oil was spewing across the Gulf of Mexico. The Tate Gallery actually voted to continue its current financial relationship with BP.

But it is time to kick oil money out the arts.

That is the argument set out in a new 100 page booklet: “Not if but when: Culture Beyond Oil”, published by art collective Liberate Tate, arts and research organisation Platform and activist group Art Not Oil.

This unique collaboration between artists, activists and researchers argues that we “can transform our perception of a society where oil addiction is inevitable into a new way of imagining our world beyond this deathly lifeblood.”

It has long been known that the reason that BP and Shell fund the arts is that the oil companies use the sponsorship to construct “a social license to operate”, which they need to cover up the harmful impacts of their practices.

In fact Culture Beyond Oil argues that “the best way to look at it is not that the oil companies are supporting the arts, but that the arts are supporting their lie – that they care about anything other than pumping as much oil out of the ground as quickly as possible. In fact oil sponsorship of the arts is an act of anaesthesia, something that numbs us, stops us perceiving the reality of fossil fuel extraction.”

Some of the most powerful parts of the Culture Beyond Oil booklet are the testimonies from activists and communities who were at the frontline of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill and who are on the frontline of tar sands extraction in Canada.

“I’ve probably never been to an art museum in my life” says Mike Roberts, fisherman from Louisiana, who has 5 children and 17 grandchildren, some of whom work with him on the boats.

Roberts recalls the day the oil from Deepwater Horizon came pouring into Baritaria Bay, his local fishing area. “What I saw when I got there absolutely floored me. It was like a tonne of bricks just fell on me. It was immense. I couldn’t get out of the oil all day. I just rode and rode and rode in oil. Being a fisherman, we think we’re tough. It made me weep. I didn’t want my grandson to see that.”

He adds: “It was a really tough day for me, not unlike a death in the family. I had not wept for thirty years before that. The last time I felt that kind of emotion was when I lost my father.”

Speaking about BP’s sponsorship of the arts he says: “But the way I feel is that where I get to live and work and spend my days, I see art every day, the art I see is painted by the hand of God. It’s absolutely beautiful out there. Where we live and work, all the fishermen call that
God’s country, because it’s phenomenal. So to have BP pour oil all over our God’s country and decimate it, is overwhelming. And then to support man-made art. It’s just wrong”.

Antonia Juhasz is an oil industry analyst, activist and author of Black Tide: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. She adds that “BP needs to be held to account as a corporation. It can’t be allowed to put a fresh coat of paint over itself – put itself in a museum, put
on a shiny coat and walk away.”

Melina Laboucan-Massimo of the Lubicon Cree comes from a community impacted by tar sands extraction. She has been campaigning on indigenous rights for the last 10 years. “In a carbon restrained world BP is developing a high-carbon resource. At the same time, BP is not respecting the rights of the indigenous peoples there. It has not done the duty to consult, it has not done the proper consultations in the tar sands that they should be doing”.

Melina adds: “It’s a sad state of affairs when companies are trying to clean up their image by giving funds to something like art, which is an amazing human expression. But when it’s tainted with something like BP giving money when, in some areas, its developments are hurting and killing or destroying wildlife or destroying ecosystems, and yet they’re taking this money, our resource.”

Each limited edition copy of the booklet features a unique artwork by the German artist (pictured) Ruppe Koselleck, ironically made with crude oil collected from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The artworks are being publicly created today in London at the Free Word Centre at 60, Farringdon Road, with a launch event taking place in the evening.

Get there if you can.

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