The Royal Shakespeare Company severed its ties with British Petroleum

Posted on: October 18, 2019 by

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Image via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 @DeFacto

As London is once more taken over by climate change protests, a recent news story from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) serves as yet another (very timely) reminder that the arts and cultural sector can no longer remain isolated from the climate change debate, as we have previously discussed here. Just days before Extinction Rebellion’s self-labelled ‘eco-warriors’ began their ‘Autumn Uprising’, bringing the whole of London to a virtual standstill, the RSC went public with its decision to terminate its sponsorship agreement with fossil fuel company British Petroleum (BP), taking effect as of December this year, which is more than two years in advance of the end date originally scheduled. In this regard, the announcement by the RSC is far from ground-breaking, as other cultural institutions in the UK have also recently announced they were severing ties with fossil-fuel related or other controversial sponsors.

RSC was quoted as saying that whilst it was particularly difficult to reach this decision, the determinative factor was the objections of its younger audiences to its ties with BP. If indeed such objections have resulted in a withdrawal of support by young people, this would be highly problematic from any cultural institution’s perspective, as it would mean that one of the core elements of their raison d’être, namely to benefit and engage with the public, would be at risk of being frustrated.

If anything, this recent example of RSC’s sponsorship termination just goes to show how sponsorship agreements are very much a two-way street. Whilst such a proposition might seem counter-intuitive at first, (after all the institution is getting all the money), there are unquestionably many advantages for the sponsor. These include the benefit of being associated with such a prestigious cultural institution thus enhancing the sponsor’s own credibility and perceived legitimacy in the eyes of the public allowing the sponsor to bask in the institution’s reflected glory. Arguably, it is precisely because of this mutually beneficial exchange that companies such as those in the fossil fuel industry have been such active and generous givers over recent decades.

Nonetheless, we seem to have reached a level of impatience in the public debate whereby the pressure public voices can exert on museums and cultural institutions at large no longer allows for these relationships to continue nor makes them sustainable for the cultural institutions in the long run.

Regardless, other institutions have remained steadfast in the continuation of their sponsorship relationship with BP, such as the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House. Whilst there might be ethical reservations to accepting funds from sources such as BP, these funds are still perfectly legal and they enable these institutions to carry out numerous projects for which their own budgets would not allow, which ultimately bring a massive benefit to the public, thus enabling them to better fulfil their purpose. On this note, Hartwig Fischer, Director of the BM, has stood up for the funds received from BP by pointing out that those resources had enabled the museum to ‘create unique learning opportunities’. Similarly, Tristan Hunt, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, has aptly pointed out that fossil fuel companies ‘will be part of the solution to dealing with climate change and they are engaged with it […] So, I don’t have a problem with having relationships with those organisations, like for example BP who are thinking very carefully about a zero-carbon future.’

As a society, we need to look at the sponsorship situation from both angles: whilst there may be very valid reasons to reject sponsorship from some sources, we also cannot ignore that public funding for cultural institutions is at best insufficient and museums are not – and cannot be expected to be – miracle workers able to perform the impossible. In this regard, the recent announcement by the UK government that it is launching a £250M Culture Investment Fund, which will ‘drive local growth, support young people, and reinforce culture’s role at the heart of communities’ could not have been more timely nor more welcome. One can only hope this fund will have a real positive impact on cultural institutions and that in the meantime a reasonable and sensible solution will be found to our current sponsorship dilemma.