Last year, I joined thousands of other visitors to the National Gallery to watch artist Ben Johnson at work. What drew the crowds was not just the thrill of seeing his giant painting emerge from an elaborate graphic but the subject. Johnson had chosen to depict the vista from the roof of the National Gallery, including Trafalgar Square devoid of people.
The panorama emphasised that, with its perfect setting and magnificent collection, the National Gallery is one of Britain's most iconic public institutions. So what a huge pity that the National Gallery is also supporting the arms trade, by accepting sponsorship from Italian arms giant Finmeccanica.
Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland
Finmeccanica is not a household name in the UK yet it is one of the world's largest arms companies. Previously state-owned, it is now largely in private hands, although the Italian government retains a 30% share. Finmeccanica has sold weapons to Algeria, Libya, Oman, Pakistan and Turkey and has recently hit the headlines with investigations alleging corruption.
Finmeccanica UK owns what used to be Westland Helicopters, now part of the AgustaWestland brand. It has embedded itself in the UK political and military establishment. Remember Geoff Hoon, former Labour Defence Secretary? In office he awarded AgustaWestland a billion pound order without competition. In May 2011 he was appointed Senior Vice President of International Business for AgustaWestland.
In September 2011 the National Gallery hosted an evening reception to celebrate the opening of DSEi, the world's largest arms fair. Hoon was there together with arms dealers, military bigwigs and assorted hangers-on who turned up to eat and drink beside priceless masterpieces. Art lovers? Probably not - but it is surely an exquisite setting to impress associates and potential customers.
So how much does Finmeccanica pay for this luxurious venue? The answer is just £30,000 a year. For that sum it has the opportunity to host two dinners or evening receptions a year, alongside other benefits. Finmeccanica must be delighted. The National Gallery doesn't do so well. The £30,000 is just 1.6% of the gallery's total sponsorships and under 0.1% of its generated funds.
Ethics and the arms trade
So why does the National Gallery accept funds from such a dubious source? When Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) asked whether such an arrangement was appropriate or ethical, the gallery sent us a copy of their "'ethical fundraising policy". However, this says nothing about what might be considered ethical or unethical.
Rather it is about reputational damage. Sponsorship must not harm the gallery and that harm must not be "disproportionate to the benefit derived". Harm includes the gallery incurring a "level of criticism from the public, press or other relevant community of professionals."
CAAT believes that by accepting Finmeccanica's sponsorship, small though it is, the National Gallery is harming its reputation in the art world and with the public. National Gallery staff members have told us that they are disturbed by the sponsorship and dislike seeing arms dealers being feted by the gallery. Public opinion polls have shown that people are deeply wary of the arms trade, especially when weapons are sold to undemocratic and authoritarian regimes. They do not expect an iconic public institution, like the National Gallery, to accept funds from arms dealers.
End Finmeccanica sponsorship
Would the gallery take sponsorship from a cigarette manufacturer or a better known arms company, like the notorious BAE Systems? It is easy to hide behind the Finmeccanica name but the fact remains that this is a major arms company. Finmeccanica funding means that the gallery is giving practical support and a veneer of legitimacy to an industry based on death and destruction.
This July, the Farnborough Airshow will bring authoritarian regimes and weapons manufacturers from around the world to the UK. In past years the gallery has staged a reception to mark the event. The National Gallery has announced that it will not hold a similar reception in 2012. Public criticism can make the gallery reconsider its links to the arms trade. That's why Campaign Against Arms Trade is asking art lovers to write to Nicholas Penny, National Gallery Director, asking him to end Finmeccanica sponsorship and pledge not to take further funding from the arms industry.
Follow Kaye Stearman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/wwwcaatorguk