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When it Comes to The Arts, BP's 'Oil Money' Is Far Less Compromising Than State Funding

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Opening my email inbox this morning I found a string of press releases from the UK Tar Sands Network, a campaign group which apparently opposes tar sands oil developments in Canada. The emails proudly proclaimed that the group had managed to disrupt a live broadcast the previous night of the opera Cinderella at London's Trafalgar Square.

The screening was part of the Summer Big Screens initiative, a series of free, live broadcasts across the UK of performances at the Royal Opera House in London. It allows members of the public to experience top-class performances at one of the world's most illustrious music venues. It doesn't quite match the experience of being there, but at least the open-air screenings make high culture accessible to thousands. And it does so without any of the patronising mediation or watering down that the establishment too often believes the public needs in order to 'get' art.

So what's the UK Tar Sands Network's problem? Well, the Summer Big Screens are sponsored by oil giant BP, which, through its Sunrise project, is at the forefront of extracting oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. To raise awareness of this, the Tar Sands Network choreographed a 'guerrilla ballet' performance, in which three dancers interrupted the Big Screen broadcast with a five-minute dance based on Swan Lake.

In this 'guerrilla' version of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, the swan queen Odette is a victim of BP's oil extraction activities, while the antagonist Von Rothbart stands for the evil Big Corporation. Siegfried, the prince, represents the naïve, but concerned citizen who finally sees the light and comes to Odette's rescue. The performance apparently featured the white swan 'being smeared by an oily substance and suffocated with a cloth'.

That the Tar Sands Network managed to distil a powerful existential tale of love and identity into a crass, anti-capitalist morality tale is not the issue here. Rather, as part of a bigger drive to pressure arts institutions into refusing sponsorship from 'destructive companies', the campaign group is trying to shut down a vital source of income for the arts world. And without the input of corporations like BP, we, the public, would be denied opportunities to enjoy a range of art forms.

The arts world relies on funding from mixed sources - from the state, philanthropists and, yes, businesses. In fact, BP is one of the most generous corporate arts sponsors in the UK. Besides the Royal Opera House, it is also a major financier of The Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Almeida theatre and the Science and Natural History Museums.

Last summer, in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a group calling itself The Good Crude Britannia called for these institutions to sever their ties with BP, with one supporter saying she hoped it would soon become 'socially unacceptable' for cultural institutions to accept funding from 'Big Oil'.

So where should the money come from, especially in these times of endless austerity packages?

It seems the guerrilla arts activists haven't thought that far. But there is at least an underlying presumption in these campaigns that corporate money is tainted, impure and hides a sinister agenda, while public funding is benign and harmless. Recent history tells us otherwise.

During the New Labour years, state funding for the arts in Britain was relatively plentiful, but so were the conditions tacked on to it. This legacy lives on, as arts practitioners and institutions seeking state funding are still compelled to prove that they can meet a range of targets that have nothing to do with creating and presenting high-quality art and everything to do with fulfilling various political agendas. The price of state funding is all too often turning art into an instrument for tackling everything from racism and bullying to obesity and crime.

While there may be individual employees of BP who care for the arts, as a company its objective is of course profit rather than cultural excellence. High-profile sponsorship deals are a way of fulfilling so-called corporate responsibility agendas and of generating positive PR. We don't need the likes of UK Tar Sands Network to 'enlighten' us about this.

But artists and cultural institutions have always relied on funding from individuals and organisations whose agendas or outlooks some might find unsavoury - from wealthy elites and royals to state bodies and religious institutions. And if anti-corporate, green guerrilla activists would have their way, the arts in Britain would become a privilege pursuit for the few.

Whatever mess BP may have made in the Gulf of Mexico, at least artists and art lovers have a lot to thank it for.