Opposition to oil sponsorships in the arts spreads in London

Art and cultural institutions in London are facing growing pressure to lose their sponsorship deals with oil and gas company BP.

Activists drawing ‘an ethical red line’ for opera, theatre, museums

Activist group Extinction Rebellion staged a die-in at London’s Royal Opera House on Tuesday to call for an end to BP sponsorship at the theatre. (Menaka Raman-Wilms/CBC)

Dozens of climate-change activists held a "die-in" at the Royal Opera House in London on Tuesday, as audience members arrived for a performance of Carmen, demanding the opera house end its sponsorship with oil and gas company BP. 

The protesters, part of a group called the Extinction Rebellion, handed out red flyers with the slogan, "Keep Carmen, Drop BP."

It was the culmination of a day of protest: the group, made up mainly of young activists, earlier marched to the offices of BP and four other oil and gas companies, calling them crime scenes.

The action was the latest in growing pressure against oil sponsorship in the U.K. Activists want art and cultural institutions, like the Royal Opera House, to stop accepting sponsorship money from BP because of its environmental impact. 

BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, is one of the U.K.'s largest oil and gas companies. It made headlines around the world for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, when more than three million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Extinction Rebellion is made up of mainly young activists who use nonviolent protest to demand action on climate change. (Menaka Raman-Wilms/CBC)

This wave of opposition to the company comes in the wake of protests against sponsorships in the U.S. by the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma makes OxyContin and has been accused of contributing to the opioid crisis.

BP, however, has no intention of pulling its current art and culture sponsorships.

'Small number of very loud voices'

Peter Mather, head of BP in Europe and the U.K., said supporting cultural institutions lets the company give back to society. He also acknowledged that climate change "is the defining issue of our time." 

"We all agree where we need to get to," he said. "It's just about the pace and the exact nature of the transition."

Mather also said that the movement against BP involvement in the arts is a minority.

"It's a small number of very loud voices." 

Actor Mark Rylance resigned as an associate artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company to take a stand against BP. (The Associated Press)

In addition to its sponsorship at the Royal Opera House, BP also funds discounted tickets for young people at the Royal Shakespeare Company, some of whose actors are taking a stand against BP.

Two weeks ago, actor Mark Rylance, known for his Oscar-winning role in the film Bridge of Spies, resigned as an associate artist at the RSC.

Rylance moved and inspired

He said that as the "evidence increases" about the dangerous actions of such companies, he no longer wanted to be "associated with BP via the RSC."

"I've been very moved and inspired by the actions of young people," he said, mentioning an earlier Extinction Rebellion protest that took place in the spring.

Actor Miriam Margolyes, who played Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter movies, followed suit last week, saying she wouldn't accept a role with the RSC.

The RSC, Royal Opera House, British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery all benefit from BP sponsorship. 

'Highly valued by our audiences'

In a statement, the RSC said, "Corporate sponsorship is an important part of our funding, alongside ticket sales, public investment, private philanthropy and commercial activity." 

The statement also highlights BP's sponsorship of £5 ($8.20 Cdn) tickets for 16-25-year-olds, outlining how it "gives many young people the chance to see our work, and the scheme is highly valued by our audiences."

Statements from the other institutions say they respect the right of activists to protest and that they appreciate BP funding. 

The Tate Modern ended its association with the company in 2016 after extensive protests, though BP said the decision was unrelated, according to this Guardian article.

In addition to Extinction Rebellion, other activists in London are also voicing their opposition to BP. 

'Masks the damage they do'

Rachel Kennerley, an activist with the performance protest group calling itself "BP or not BP," says the oil company's sponsorship provides cover for the company. 

"They put all this money and effort into looking like benign members of society, letting us access culture. Which really masks the damage they do." 

Activist Chris Garrard outside the National Portrait Gallery in London. He says that “an ethical red line,” needs to be drawn around destructive industries. (Menaka Raman-Wilms/CBC)

Last month, BP or not BP staged a protest outside the National Portrait Gallery's BP-sponsored portrait awards ceremony. 

Activists also dressed as mermaids and sang a BP-themed version of Under the Sea to protest sponsorship of the British Museum's Sunken Cities exhibit.

An ethical red line

Another organization, Culture Unstained, also wants to end fossil fuel funding of the arts in the U.K. 

Co-director Chris Garrard said the campaign against oil sponsorship is like those against the tobacco and arms industries. 

"It's about drawing an ethical red line around the most destructive industries," he said. "To want to address that is not saying that all corporate sponsorship or all private donors are a problem."