It's oil money that fuels our museums

Protests against BP arts funding are wildly misplaced, says Tiffany Jenkins. In fact, big-business benefactors should be lauded

The Medici of Florence, with their great wealth and power, helped to create the most magnificent art known to mankind.

That this was done in their own interests is in no doubt: they used artistic patronage to cleanse the image of their money, which was perceived as ill-gotten through usury.

The Getty family – oil tycoons of the 1900s – wanted to convey a positive message of themselves in the context of growing public resentment against the monopoly of the upper classes. The acquisition and display of antiquities and fine paintings was one method, which led to the glorious J. Paul Getty Museum in California, and many other collections around the world.

The greatest works in our galleries – even the buildings – come from the deep pockets of egotistical, tyrannical patrons in search of self-glory. Twas ever thus. Art funding has never been a pretty picture. But today, some are too squeamish about "tainted money" from certain sources. An organisation called Liberate Tate is in a state about one the most generous funders of the arts – British Petroleum – and are demanding the millions be refused.

If you have spent any time in an art gallery recently, you are likely to have BP to thank for the experience. A major donor to the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the Tate galleries, it also supports the National Maritime Museum and the Science and Natural History Museums.

Yet in Tate Britain last week, a naked man lay in the foetal position in the middle of the floor while several veiled figures from the advocacy group covered him in what looked like oil. It wasn't another piece of poor performance art, but a protest with the point that the gallery should turn down the cash. The "show" lasted for 87 minutes to commemorate the 87 days over which oil was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico a year ago.

Liberate Tate are not the only ones bleating about the sponsorship from big oil in a time of climate change. A letter to a national newspaper this week, with over 160 signatures from pointy-headed luminaries including Naomi Klein, the artists Billy Childish and "the vacuum cleaner" (yes, really), as well as curators and directors of festivals, called for "Tate to demonstrate its commitment to a sustainable future by ending its sponsorship relationship with BP."

How misguided. BP is a perfectly legitimate company and we all use oil everyday. Besides, refusing money is hardly sustainable for artists. The BP Portrait Award gives £25,000 for the first prize, and has helped to launch the careers of numerous portrait painters and photographers, who otherwise might not have been able to earn a living.

We cannot afford to argue for less in the age of austerity. What matters is the freedom to create whilst retaining independence and artistic integrity. That can only be ensured by getting money from as many sources as possible. We should praise those who give so that the arts will flourish.

As it happens, whilst funding is often complicated – all sorts of individuals, religions and organisations want to use the arts to promote their own interests – in recent times corporate funding has been far less meddling than state funding.

Given what controls are in place from the Arts Council and other agencies – instructing artists and institutions about the purpose of their art (it needs to raise self-esteem, contribute to social inclusion, improve community and win over underprivileged audiences) – money from oil companies comes with fewer strings attached.

Funding from petroleum is probably preferable to money from the state and associated organisations, with all their demands. Of course the oily bosses sponsor the arts for PR purposes. So what? Give them their plaques. Flatter them at cocktail parties. Take their money, and create something worthy of their support.

Dr Tiffany Jenkins is director of arts and society at the Institute of Ideas