DCMS in crisis talks over arms firm’s Great Exhibition of the North sponsorship

Artists pull out over BAE Systems involvement
Patrick Steel
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The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is in crisis talks with Newcastle Gateshead Initiative (NGI) - the organiser of the Great Exhibition of the North, also known as Get North 2018 - and BAE Systems, over the arms firm’s sponsorship of the event.

The talks come as two artists have pulled out and several more are considering withdrawing over BAE Systems “premier partner” status at the event. The other “premier partners” are Virgin Trains and management consultancy Accenture.

Museums Journal understands that discussions are focused on “how to move forwards” following the outcry over the sponsorship deal, which an NGI spokeswoman said was a “small percentage” of the £12.5m cost of the exhibition.

DCMS declined to comment.

Officially, NGI’s position was set out last week by Gary Verity, the chairman of the Great Exhibition of the North: “BAE Systems is supporting the Great Exhibition of the North as part of its commitment to address the UK skills shortage by encouraging more young people to consider science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers.”

The Commoners’ Choir, led by former Chumbawumba member Boff Whalley, and singer Nadine Shah have pulled out of the event.

A statement issued by the Commoners Choir said: “We felt completely unhappy being represented alongside a corporation with a track record in supplying weaponry to countries waging war on their own people and boasting appalling human rights records.”

And a petition calling for Get North 2018 to drop BAE Systems as a sponsor has gathered more than 2,000 signatures. “BAE has made more than £6bn from sales to Saudi Arabia during the ongoing war in Yemen,” the petition states. “Unicef warns that, ‘nearly every child in Yemen’ is in need of humanitarian assistance. The Great Exhibition of the North claims to offer ‘family-friendly fun’. This is totally at odds with its with association with BAE systems.”

Organisations involved in the event are also distancing themselves from the sponsorship deal.

Iain Watson, the director of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, which is hosting a number of the exhibition events at its museums, said: “We acknowledge the concerns raised in connection to sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North.
“Funds from the arts council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University are supporting Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ activity and exhibition programmes. We are not in receipt of funds from BAE Systems.”

And a joint statement from Baltic and Sage Gateshead said: “We wish to reassure our artists, partners and stakeholders that Arts Council England funds are supporting the delivery of our artistic content, including the concerts, exhibitions and offsite commissions presented by Baltic and Sage Gateshead. We are not in receipt of funds from BAE Systems.

“Our conversations and commissions with artists and partners began some months and years ago, well in advance of the announcement of BAE Systems as a Premier Partner of the Great Exhibition of the North.”

A spokeswoman for Arts Council England said: “Although we were involved in some of the initial planning discussions about the Great Exhibition of the North, it is a government-led initiative and the content is far wider than the arts council footprint.

“In December last year we awarded £750,000 from our lottery-funded Ambition for Excellence scheme to Newcastle Gateshead Initiative towards the delivery of the Great Exhibition programme.

“The issue for artists and arts organisations of whether to accept sponsorship, or be associated with an organisation receiving sponsorship, can be complex and we expect boards to take it seriously. Our expectation is that where sponsorship is involved boards will consider their position on a case by case basis, including how that sits alongside the organisation’s mission and values.

“It should be remembered that the arts council is just one of the organisations that may provide funding. Organisations we fund are independent and have their own boards. It is not for the arts council to second guess whether a sponsorship fit is appropriate.”

Museums Journal approached BAE Systems for comment.

Update
09.03.2018

BAE systems has withdrawn its sponsorship of the Great Exhibition following this week's outcry. A statement released today by the firm said: "While BAE Systems remains supportive of the aims of the Great Exhibition we have decided to redirect our support to other initiatives better suited to both our skills and innovation objectives and in support of the industrial strategy of the north of England."

In response to this, a spokeswoman for NGI said: “We accept and respect BAE Systems' decision. Working with all of our partners, funders, supporters and contributors, we remain focused on delivering a successful event which will shine a spotlight on the North's great art and culture, design and innovation.

“It's a significant opportunity to raise the profile of the North, change outdated perceptions and drive future growth and we are absolutely committed to achieving this success for the benefit of all of us who live, work and do business here."



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