Whenever I go to an art exhibit I never think too much of the signs outside which proclaim who it was sponsored by or particularly notice the discreet (but prominent) logos of the companies included around the show. If I do ever consciously think about these things I’ve assumed two things. Firstly, a sponsor has given a large amount of money to support this exhibit so, even if they are a dodgy company, at least their money is going towards something good. Secondly, the presence of a sponsor’s branding doesn’t have any significant impact on how the art of that exhibit is perceived or interpreted. Reading Mel Evans’ book “Artwash” I’ve become conscious of the fallacy and danger of these assumptions. Drawing upon a large amount of historical research, investigations into the financial and power structures of cultural institutions, theoretical and critical theory and her own experiences working within Liberate Tate (an art collective that uses creative intervention for social change) demonstrations, Evans convincingly argues why artists and members of the public alike should challenge the insidious way petroleum conglomerates align themselves with artistic venues.
Evans focuses specifically on the group of Tate museums across the UK as an example of a cultural institution that has sanctioned a longstanding partnership with BP. She shows how it’s not a coincidence that the museum has maintained this company’s sponsorship despite criticism from the public as well as many public figures. Political influences have pressured these institutions into inviting such sponsorship and have seen prominent representatives of the organization become influential members of the museum’s board. You would assume that BP must donate a large amount of money to wield such influence, yet Evans shows that the company’s donations form only a very small percentage of the funds which allow the museum to continue. The benefits for BP far outweigh the benefits for Tate because of the social license the association creates for the company. This sponsorship is a form of “Artwash” to brush over the dramatically destructive effects oil companies have on both the natural environment and specific communities.
When a company’s name and symbol are imprinted on a cultural institution or specific exhibits its presence is not benign. Evans argues how “Logos are architectural features, and are also powerful symbolic objects.” The association created between these logos and the artistic institution form both a conscious and subliminal impact upon viewers whose overall impression of the company becomes more positive. In some cases, it can also directly undermine the conscious intentions of the exhibits. More than the effect sponsorship directly has upon a viewer’s experience, Evans shows how “In each arena of curating and learning, it is evident that BP sponsorship has caused problems for Tate: from cognitive dissonance for audiences, to undermining the choices of curators, conflicting with learning programmes, and emerging unexpectedly as a bone of contention between artists and the gallery at events and in commissions.” An oil company’s sponsorship of cultural institutions undermines the creative expression and value of the art which is meant to reflect who we are as a fully cognizant and socially responsible society.
The book begins with an account of a summer party held at the Tate in 2010 where the author and other members of Liberate Tate created a demonstration which meaningfully disrupted the party. It was a particularly potent expression as the party was held in part to mark twenty years of BP sponsorship. The party was occurring at the same time that the horrendous effects of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico were spiralling out of control. For one of the nation’s greatest cultural institutions to be celebrating a company that was creating such a monumentally negative impact upon the globe was the height of irony. Mel Evans’ book is a rallying cry for both artists and citizens to accept a more socially responsible role in how we consume and interpret the arts. We don’t all need to walk into museums and spill bags of oil to make a statement; we can make a change by being conscious of the impact sponsorship has on the arts and letting cultural institutions know what we think about the companies they choose to align themselves with. This book shows why it’s important we be more aware of the meaning of such corporate associations with the arts.