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The Tate’s secrecy about its BP sponsorship figures was shameful

Why did it take so long for the sums to be revealed?

David Lister
Friday 30 January 2015 17:00 GMT

As someone who fills up the car at a BP garage and consumes food and drink delivered in lorries that probably do the same, I can’t get too worked up about the ethics of the Tate having BP as a sponsor. There have been protests at the Tate and other arts bodies using BP money despite the company’s controversial environmental record. And, it became an issue again this week, after the Tate was forced, after Freedom of Information requests, to declare how much money BP had given it. We live in a world in which the arts has to have big-business sponsors, and there are often likely to be ethical questions around that. Perhaps we should also be looking at the tax arrangements of every business that donates to the arts.

But what I can get worked up about is the way the Tate has handled this whole affair. Why did it take three years and many FoI requests to get a publicly funded national institution to divulge this information? Presumably, BP is proud to give money to the Tate. The amount should not be a secret. And through that other, less publicised but considerably larger funder, the taxpayer, we all have a stake in the gallery. It belongs to us, the public, not to the artists displayed within, not to the board of trustees, not even to the estimable Sir Nicholas Serota, its director. Amounts given in sponsorship for all publicly funded arts institutions should be in the public domain. The arts are not a secret society.

The other point of concern is that now the amount has been divulged, it is staggering. Staggeringly small. I had half expected to see figures of £1m and more a year, and had to rub my eyes when the Tate finally revealed that BP had given it over a 17 year period sums that never exceeded £330,000 a year, and some years were as low as £150,000. This from a company whose annual profits run into the billions. For these relatively paltry sums, BP’s branding was all over the Tate’s buildings and promotional activity, and the yearly hangings of the permanent collection were grandly called the BP displays.

My gallery (yes I am maintaining that I as a taxpayer am a stakeholder) was being sold rather cheaply, I couldn’t help but feel. Apparently, the Tate’s ethics committee debated the BP sponsorship. What a pity the Tate doesn’t have an accountability committee and a Guide to Basic Negotiating Skills committee. The public would have been better served.

A laughable fight at the opera

If you want a really good row, and I mean a real corker, then look to the rarefied world of opera management. As reported this week, the outgoing chairman of the English National Opera, Martyn Rose, fired an astonishing broadside at ENO’s artistic director John Berry in a leaked “private” letter to the ENO president Sir Vernon Ellis. Mr Rose said in the letter that “for the very survival of the ENO, Berry must leave, preferably soon...Time is of the essence. We cannot wait any longer.” Charming. My hunch is that he will have to wait a good deal longer, as the ENO is on something of an artistic high at the moment. Mr Rose also named a sum which he said was the deficit under Mr Berry. The ENO’s own spokesman said he did not recognise the sum that his own chairman had identified. As chairman of the board, Mr Rose must have made his feelings known to fellow board members, yet Mr Berry is not leaving. So he clearly failed to win them over to his view. The usual journalistic cliche about a row at an opera house is to say “there must be an opera in all this.” But in this case, with the stamping of feet, the pomposity, the overblown rhetoric, it feels more like a Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta.

A phrase we should all use when buying a ticket

I commend reader Mrs A Theakston from York, who tells me she is boycotting her local theatre, the Theatre Royal in York, until it changes its policy on booking fees. I particularly like what she told the box office manager when she arrived, cash in hand, to purchase a ticket for that day’s performance. Asked to pay a booking fee, she replied: “I am not booking, I am buying.” I must remember that phrase. Perhaps there should be badges or t-shirts with it on that regular theatregoers can wear.

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