The Playgoer: Philanthropy as "Image Laundering"

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Philanthropy as "Image Laundering"

Frances Perraudin, in Time, reports on London arts lovers fighting back against morally questionable corporate sponsors:

The cozy relationship between the arts and major corporations has often proved a controversial issue. But now, thanks to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, protesters — already angered by oil’s role in climate change and human rights abuses — are focusing their crosshairs on BP…“It’s so galling to see every single cultural attraction in London that I care about stained with this horrible, horrible sponsorship,” says Liberate Tate member Tom Costello…Critics accuse BP of using blockbuster exhibitions and arts awards (the highlight of the National Portrait Gallery’s year is the “BP Portrait Award”) to direct attention away from their environmental and ethical crimes. “These sponsorship deals give companies like BP the social license to operate,” says Dan Gretton, co-founder of Platform, an arts and research charity that puts pressure on arts organizations to dump their oil partners. “Having these links with cultural organizations is a way for them to launder their image.”
And, yes, London theatre has been equally compromised:
How can you take a moral standpoint if you're being sponsored by companies many consider to be immoral? As an example, protester Costello points to a new play showing at the National Theatre. "Earthquakes in London," Costello says, "is an incredible piece of theatre." He feels its climate-change message is somewhat compromised, though, by the fact that the National Theatre has both BP and Shell as sponsors. "At one point a character turns to the audience and asks, 'Are you embarrassed? Well, you should be,'" says Costello. "Oh the irony!"
Then again, 
"If they can get money from Satan himself," wrote art critic Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, "they should take it."
Must be referring to David Koch.
My general feeling these days--after mulling over the Koch story--is that unless it's for feeding the poor or curing the sick, I would hope arts orgs in these desperate times do start thinking more about who they get into bed with financially.  Since they're basically serving as tools in the donor's p.r. campaign to whitewash their image.

(Hat tip: Salmon, who thinks the Tate et al deserve a break.)

1 comment:

Brian said...

Want to challenge you a bit here.

By buying a ticket to the NT's production of 'Earthquakes in London,' one is not giving money to BP. Rather, one is taking it from them (in a way) and putting it toward an ostensibly socially constructive use. And the play itself promotes values that raise awareness of some of the reasons why one might want to challenge/protest BP's corporate policies.

The difficulty comes if/when theatre's become timid about producing works that challenge corporate interests, or if the corporations ask for the right to alter/censor artistic content. But the NT's productions of Earthquakes and David Hare's Power of Yes seem to show that it feels confident in still being able to present 'anti-corporate' shows...

Yes, it's a complex issue but rather than sever relations with a company like BP, how much more interesting to bring them into a debate (perhaps at a public forum) following one of the productions that they've sponsored? Maybe they'd come and maybe they wouldn't, maybe they'd take the money away... But as long as they want to give some of their profits to a 'good cause' and don't ask artists to lie or censor themselves, I don't know if I have an issue with it.