The Implication of the BP Sponsorship Protests at the National Portrait Gallery

Traditional corporate giving at fine art museums (e.g. sponsorship of exhibitions without strings, big donations for capital campaigns) is becoming increasingly rare in the U.S. At the very least, companies aren't as generous as they were in the pre-great Recession heyday of corporate contributions to the arts.  I think we'll always see a corporate presence of some sort at major institutions, but as corporate values changes based on generational, social, and environmental influences, it's harder for arts and culture to compete. 

I should preface this next bit with the acknowledgement that corporate giving to arts/culture absolutely varies by country. My experience is in the U.S., with some comparative analysis to big cities in European countries (Paris, London, Milan, etc). One city that always seems to do quite well, at least from my outside perspective, is London. Maybe it's because London is the financial center of the world, and corporate spending on arts/culture tends to skew toward financial services. It could be that there is just a longer and more ingrained tradition of giving to the arts. Or it could be, as I've always (superstitiously) expected, that because English institutions are largely publicly funded, there is less pressure to raise corporate dollars, and naturally that's when the money always pours in. 

The British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and Tate Modern all seem to be outliers in terms of corporate donations and sponsorships, benefiting from longstanding corporate partners like BP. 

Screengrab via BP's CSR site.

Screengrab via BP's CSR site.

So when I saw Hyperallergic's coverage of the protests against The National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait prize exhibition by BP or Not BP?, an anti-British Petroleum (BP) artist protest group, it occurred to me that even the most "comfortable" institutions might soon be at risk of losing critical corporate sponsorship dollars. 

One of my theories on the general decline of corporate alignment with arts and culture is the role that corporate social responsibility serves in attracting and retaining valuable millennial employees. CSR initiatives, when they don't align directly with a company's brand or mission, increasingly reflect the millennial values of impact, the environment, and community. It's challenging for large, established fine art museums to make the case for a mutually beneficial partnership with a company and act on it, especially when they are dealing with high rates of attrition in development departments and general bureaucracy and institutional hierarchies. 

Photo via Hyperallergic; by Kristian Buus, courtesy BP nor not BP?

Photo via Hyperallergic; by Kristian Buus, courtesy BP nor not BP?

This protest against BP's support of the National Portrait Gallery certainly shows that the company's "hypocrisy" has been noticed, and perhaps this will influence its future giving in the UK. At the very least, companies want to engender at least some good will when they're making a donation in the community - and if a corporate gift turns into a PR nightmare, that's bad for its image and its prospect of attracting and retaining valuable talent.

It does seem odd that despite its very public pollution disasters, BP does not include any environmental causes in its pillars of community giving... I'm all for corporate support of arts and culture (obviously), but even I acknowledge that there are many other advantageous causes for companies to support.

Ultimately, my observation is that if even the last bastion of corporate support for arts/culture (London) is showing its cracks, it's further evidence that we need to reframe art's value in our community for communities. The end of traditional art museum sponsorships don't need to imply a decline for overall corporate support of arts/culture. 

CSR, Art + CommunityNatalie Lemle