Despite Protests, BP Still Committed To The Arts

British oil company BP says it will continue to finance sponsorships of art institutions, including the Tate Britain and the British Museum. This despite the activities of protesters who have tried to call attention to BP's handling of the Gulf spill disaster by smearing the Tate's main hall with a feather-covered slick.

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In Great Britain, artists and environmental activists have already begun what they say will be a summer of protests against BP. They will be showing up outside the many cultural institutions that take sponsorship money from BP. Protestors say places like the Tate Gallery and the Royal Opera House stain their reputations by being associated with the company responsible for the Gulf Oil spill. The institutions say it's complicated. Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER: Black clad, black masked protestors filling buckets of gooey black oil outside the Tate Gallery last week, blocking the path of the grandes(ph) and corporate worthies arriving for a summer party celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship.

All of the buckets adorned with BP's bright green sunflower logo. In May, protestors released dead fish tied to black helium balloons in the Tate Modern's Vast Turbine Hall. Museum staff had to shoot the balloons down with air rifles.

Like Royal Dutch Shell's red and yellow seashell, the BP sunflower is a subliminal presence in the brochures and signage of some of Britain's most cherished cultural institutions. Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace says that's just the point.

Mr. CHARLIE KRONICK (Greenpeace): What their sponsorship for institutions like the Tate, the Natural Portrait Gallery gives them is a, you know, to use the jargon, a social license to operate. It's a fantastic smoke screen to high behind when they're being criticized for the real problems with their core business.

BARKER: BP doesn't reveal how much it donates to the arts here and the institutions themselves aren't saying. But BP and Shell are believed to be the most generous corporate donors on the British cultural scene.

They filled a funding gap created in the 1990s, when public indignation and tough new laws forced the big tobacco companies to pull their sponsorships. The activists say it's time to harness the same revulsion against big oil's largesse.

Not so fast, says Sir Christopher Frayling.

Sir CHRISTOPHER FRAYLING (Royal Academy of Arts): Well, now is not the time to get particularly squeamish about sponsorship.

BARKER: Frayling´┐Żis rector of the Royal Academy of the Arts, an institution he's trying to pilot through some of the choppiest waters in modern memory. Britain's new conservative-led government has ordered 25 percent across-the-board cuts to all but the most essential programs. The country's heavily subsidized arts institutions are staring disaster in the face.

Sir FRAYLING: If you take away that kind of corporate sponsorship - and my god, it's difficult to get at the moment - if you take that away it would actually decimate the arts in some respects.

BARKER: The Tate, Royal Opera House, British Museum and National Portrait Gallery have issued a joint communique defending their connection with BP. For its part, BP says everyone has a right to protest. But in a statement, the company says it's saddened by the protests. We're doing the best we can to deal with a difficult situation, it says. BP also says it's unaware of any arts institutions in the U.K. or the U.S. pulling out of sponsorship deals.

The controversy has divided Britain's art community. Those pushing for a boycott of BP sponsorships argue Britain's arts and cultural institutions are demeaning themselves by lending a little of their cache to the embattled oil giant.

The opposing argument was most pungently summed up by Jonathan Jones, art critic for the liberal guardian newspaper. If, in these perilous times, Britain's museums and galleries can get money from Satan, himself, he wrote, they should take it.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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