Oiling the works: Museums, sponsors and future funding prospects

Posted on: March 25, 2016 by

Tate_modern_LondonIt was reported earlier this month that BP’s controversial sponsorship of Tate which spans more than 25 years will be put to bed next year. BP cited the “extremely challenging business environment” as the reason behind the parting of ways. According to Tate’s website, the partnership has been to thank for the showing of many of the 66,000 plus works which make up its collection. In a similar vein, reports late last year suggested that the Science Museum’s longstanding financial support from Shell was going the same way.

While both institutions have always robustly defended their association with the oil giants, they have long been dogged by vociferous protests from campaigners convinced that these companies were exploiting the partnerships for their own PR purposes – ‘art-washing’ their reputations at a time when climate change moves ever higher up the world agenda. It would stretch credibility to imagine that the reputational risks for the institutions didn’t play at least some part in the recent decisions.

It will be interesting to see how Tate, the Science Museum and other cultural organisations up and down the country respond to the increasingly challenging economic climate. Although the chancellor had some good news for the sector in the recent budget (injections of cash for a few named heritage organisations; an extension of eligibility for VAT refunds and tax relief for temporary and touring exhibition costs), the fundamental problem of diminishing local authority funding will continue to challenge the operations (possibly the existence) of many local museums.

The pressure to engage in more unfamiliar means of raising funds will undoubtedly increase markedly. Indeed, the Government’s Culture White Paper, released this week, outlines a pilot scheme, to be delivered jointly by Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, that will provide match-funding for cultural organisations that use crowdfunding to raise support. The Paper also urges cultural organisations to diversify their funding, “including exploring non-grant sources of income and innovative means of fundraising”.

As they seek to secure their futures, commercial sponsorship will undoubtedly feature highly on funding wish-lists. As we reported in our recent post, the Museum Association’s revised Code of Ethics will help to keep them on a sound ethical track, with its focus on maintaining institutional integrity (among other matters). It urges institutions to “resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including … funders”; to “carefully consider offers of financial support from commercial organisations” and to “seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with those of the museum”. Balancing the requirements of financial sustainability with the need to maintain the robust ethical standards and high levels of public trust upon which the sector depends may well prove a challenging balancing act to pull off.

Photograph: Tate Modern by Jagandrk (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons