Museums facing tough questions over sponsorship - Museums Association

Museums facing tough questions over sponsorship

Several venues have been hit by negative publicity because of the corporate sponsors they have chosen to work with. Geraldine Kendall Adams talks to activists and museums about the increasingly contentious issue and how it might play out in the future
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
The Natural History Museum in London made unwelcome headlines in October when news leaked on social media that it was hosting an evening reception in honour of the Saudi embassy. Coming in the midst of a global media storm over the disappearance of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was later revealed to have died inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the timing of the reception could hardly have been worse.

The gruesome alleged murder of the journalist has attracted condemnation even from those quarters, such as the UK government, that are usually reluctant to criticise the Saudi regime. It also turned public attention to the Arabic state’s role in the catastrophic yet often- ignored war in Yemen. The incident left the museum facing difficult questions about its money- raising activities.

The issue of ethical sponsorship, fundraising and commercial revenue streams in museums and galleries has been bubbling under for several years, particularly since funding cuts have left the sector increasingly reliant on private sources. But 2018 could be described as the year that it finally reached a tipping point.  

In the past few months, the Design Museum, Science Museum Group (SMG) and Great Exhibition of the North, among others, have found themselves in hot water over their choice of commercial partners. A common thread among these examples is that the protests were not only led by activist groups, as is usually the case, but by stakeholders who had direct involvement with the institutions – and that their objections had a tangible impact on the museums’ activities.

PR nightmare

The Design Museum suffered a PR nightmare when a third of the artists featured in its Hope to Nope exhibition of political and protest-related art pulled their work from display after learning that the museum had hosted an event for Leonardo, an Italian company specialising in aerospace, defence and security

The SMG, meanwhile, has faced intense criticism from the scientific community, with 46 scientists signing an open letter objecting to its partnerships with companies involved in the fossil-fuel industry. Earlier this year, the SMG-run Science and Industry Museum in Manchester suffered three partner organisations withdrawing from the Manchester Science Festival in protest at energy and petrochemicals group Shell’s sponsorship of the museum’s festival exhibition.

Several artists and performers dropped out of the Great Exhibition of the North, which took place in Newcastle-Gateshead over the summer, after BAE Systems was named as a main partner – this led, in turn, to the British defence contractor also withdrawing from the exhibition.

Activists themselves have also claimed several major victories in 2018. Most notable was Shell’s decision to end its long-running partnerships with the UK’s National Gallery and three museums in Holland, directing sponsorship activities away from the culture sector.

Institutions that have received money from the philanthropic Sackler Foundation, meanwhile, including London institutions the National Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum,may be subject to further scrutiny as a mass lawsuit and criminal investigation gets under way against the Sackler family, who are being sued for selling the painkiller OxyContin to doctors while disguising its addictive nature; the drug has been implicated in huge numbers of opioid-related deaths.

Greater urgency

Chris Garrard, a co-founder of anti-oil activist group Culture Unstained, says issues around private funding seem to have taken on a new urgency this year.  

“Activist groups have been trying to push these ethical questions for a long time,” he says. “It feels like a wedge that has now opened up

a wider conversation. It’s become a much more mainstream issue – broader groups of stakeholders may be feeling more empowered to come forward.” 
Garrard says that the shift is particularly apparent in attitudes towards fossil fuel companies. “The conversation around oil sponsorship and climate change is suddenly shifting, particularly after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report [which estimated that there are just 12 years left to prevent a climate crisis],” he says. “People are starting to understand how useful the arts have been to companies with an image to clean up.”  

There’s growing strength of feeling within the sector about this issue too, says Garrard, reflected in conversations he had with professionals at last month’s Museums Association (MA) conference in Belfast, where Culture Unstained ran a Festival of Change stall inviting delegates to take part in a “Take the Money and Run?” quiz.  

“There was a fairly strong ethical consensus in the sector against taking money from arms, oil and tobacco companies,” Garrard says. 
This finding was reflected in a survey earlier this year by Arts Professional, which showed that more than 69% of respondents felt arts organisations should consider refusing the support of companies associated with politics, armaments, environmental destruction, or harm to animals or wellbeing. So why is there a discrepancy between the attitudes of museum professionals and the institutions for which they work?  

“Particularly in larger institutions, there’s a disconnect where the ethical consensus among curators and other museum staff isn’t reflected at policy and governance level,” says Garrard. “We sometimes come up against trustees from a corporate background who take a very different view.”  

Lack of accountability

There is also a lack of accountability about how these decisions are taken, argues Garrard, and a tendency among some institutions to become defensive when confronted, rather than addressing the underlying ethical questions.  

Activists such as Garrard believe there needs to be greater consistency and transparency across the sector about how due diligence is conducted on potential commercial partners. He says: “There is no consistency in how due diligence processes work and where the red lines are.”  

Representatives of the museums and galleries in question believe the issue is not as black and white as protestors suggest. In a recent blog, the SMG’s chief executive, Ian Blatchford, dismissed criticism by what he described as “single-interest pressure groups [who] want us to end our relationship with whatever sector offends their particular cause”.   

He continued: “Enlightened self- interest is central to the idea of sponsorship. At the SMG, we actively seek out businesses whose long-term interests are served by our mission to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.”  

A Natural History Museum spokeswoman says: “These revenue streams help us maintain our unique collection, carry out important scientific research and engage visitors with the natural world. The conversation around museums’ funding is important and ongoing, and we welcome discussions with other organisations about the shared challenges faced across the sector.”  

The Design Museum’s joint directors wrote in a blog that the Hope to Nope controversy had been fanned by “professional activists” – something that is strongly denied by the artists themselves. The directors also said that turning down commercial partners for political reasons could endanger the museum’s charitable status, an argument that Garrard and others say is inaccurate.  

In spite of these recent prominent cases, the sector as a whole is ahead of many other industries when it comes to this issue, says Rowan Brown, the director of Museums Northumberland, who recently completed a term as the chair of the Museums Association’s ethics committee.

“The ethics committee is routinely dealing with matters of sponsorship, and as the code dictates, the important thing is to be able to square your value set with that of a potential sponsor,” says Brown. Although activists want more consistency across the board, the MA’s Code of Ethics does not set out a “one size fits all” solution to these questions, primarily because of the diversity of the sector.  

“It is not the same answer for everybody – it’s something that requires a bespoke solution,” says Brown.  

The question of what counts as an acceptable source of funding can be quite nuanced – for example, a museum might wish to promote a public health agenda but also want to support a small local business that produces alcohol. Whatever decision the institution arrives at, Brown says, it should be underpinned by due diligence research.  

“The important thing is to be able to justify and evidence your decision, and reach a position that you are ready to own in a public sphere,” Brown says.  

Editorial control  

Another major concern in the debate around ethical revenue streams is the extent to which external funders are given a say in a museum’s editorial decision-making. All of the institutions named in this article firmly rebut any suggestion that sponsors are given editorial control, but Museums Journal is aware of at least one case in which a museum allowed a private company to veto certain exhibition materials.  

There are indications that public funders are starting to take more notice of issues around corporate partnerships. Arts Council England sent a request last month to its National Portfolio Organisations asking for details of the private investment they receive.  

“Money never comes to public bodies with no strings attached, and it is up to public bodies to understand this, and to stick to their principles,” says David Fleming, the chair of public history at Liverpool Hope University and a former director of National Museums Liverpool. “The reliance on unaccountable sources of funding will grow while we remain in a situation of decreasing public spending.”  

Ultimately, it may be the court of public opinion that pushes the sector to recognise some universal red lines. “What we need are directors and governors who will not take money from anyone at any price,” says Fleming. “Sometimes the price is simply not worth paying, especially if public trust is lost.”

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