On Sunday, in an impressive feat of design and engineering, a 75-metre turbine blade was carefully positioned in the centre of Hull and became the first major artwork of the UK City of Culture. Perhaps the last time a turbine blade was recast as a piece of public art was in 2012, when the art collective Liberate Tate installed a turbine blade without permission inside Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. It was offered as a gift to the Tate's collection in order to make a bold statement about BP's sponsorship of the gallery - a sponsorship deal that has now been dropped. With the oil company also a sponsor of Hull City of Culture, the parallels between these two artworks are unavoidable. And when Hull is one of the UK's cities most at risk from rising sea levels, was accepting sponsorship from a fossil fuel company ever going to be ethical?
"The Gift" (2012) by Liberate Tate. © Martin LeSanto-Smith 2012.
BP's sponsorship of Hull 2017 was ushered in just as controversy around the company's arts sponsorship was escalating, with awkward questions being raised about the company's influence over the museums and galleries it sponsors. Just months later, it was announced that BP's decades-long sponsorship of Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival would end. At the time, BP weakly claimed that it had decided to walk away, blaming the decision on a "challenging business environment" and the low oil price. In reality, determined arts activists with robust ethical arguments for not accepting oil sponsorship had created the challenging business environment.
Despite the low oil price, BP still managed to give its CEO a 20% pay rise in 2016, going against the views of its shareholders. Meanwhile, BP's sponsorship of Hull 2017 was announced just as workers at its nearby Saltend Plant were informed that many of their jobs might be at risk. And just a few weeks ago, a leaked internal report revealed how BP had narrowly avoided a potentially fatal incident at the Saltend Plant, and also at its refinery in Whiting, Indiana. It was clear from that report that all too often it is workers and local communities that bear the burden of BP's risk-taking. To understand the gravity of these incidents, we only need to look at the company's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed eleven workers and continues to damage local ecosystems and livelihoods more than six years later.
And this is where BP's sponsorship of art and culture comes in. Despite the company's determination to keep drilling for oil, refining fossil fuels and taking risks in the process, BP has been able to paint itself as some kind of responsible corporate sponsor - and for a very low price too. In 2015, BP was more than happy to talk about the £2 million a year it was sharing out between four iconic cultural institutions, as part of a five-year block deal. The recipients - The British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate - all willingly complied, praising BP's apparent "loyalty".
But in that same year, BP received around £250 million directly from the UK government in tax breaks and subsidies, despite making around £4.7 billion profits. The company's payments to the arts sector were a drop in the ocean compared to the cash it was getting from the UK taxpayer and BP's "generosity" as a corporate sponsor just isn't borne out by the facts. While BP and big oil has been bolstered in "hard times" by government handouts, our museums, galleries and arts organisations have been landed with swingeing cuts. We have to ask, when BP sponsors Hull City of Culture or a major museum, who is it that really comes out on top?
"Actor-vist" inside the BP-sponsored British Museum. © Diana More 2015
Alongside exhibitions and performances, Hull 2017 will also include a series of "BP Cultural Vision" lectures, including one by Martin Green, the Chief Executive and Director of Hull City of Culture. Will he, unlike other BP-sponsored institutions, take the opportunity to be fully accountable to the public and actually comment on BP's ethics, from its environmental record to its links to regimes that abuse human rights, rather than turning a blind eye? Did he, unlike the British Museum, have ethical guidelines in place when he signed off on BP's sponsorship?
Hull has emerged in recent years as an industry leader in renewable energy and also as a hub for the arts. Indeed, many of the cultural events in the city in 2017 will come from local artists not included in the official programme. In contrast, BP continues to use the arts as cover for its high-risk drilling, its carbon emissions and its obstruction of crucial climate change legislation. There is an unpleasant irony in BP promoting its own "cultural vision" when its business plans continue to impact communities and cultures from West Papua to the Gulf Coast.
Despite its history in Hull, BP's commitment to the local community now looks superficial at best. BP is planning to drill for more oil and gas around the world, helping to drive the sea level rise that will ultimately inundate Hull if we stay on our current fossil-fuel-dependent course. Even though they did not select the sponsors for Hull's City of Culture, local artists are being co-opted to improve BP's image. At the very least, Hull 2017 should let them exercise their own ethical judgment and be offered the chance to opt out of BP branding on their work.