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Corporate sponsorship of museums and galleries – Free money at what price?


Last month, the National Portrait Gallery announced the end of its partnership with oil and gas giant BP, a partner since 1990, with effect from December 2022.

Museums and galleries have long relied on corporate sponsors to provide revenue streams and other benefits to the arts sector. Funding has become increasingly critical amid reduced public spending and the Covid-19 pandemic. However, when sponsors face increased controversy and criticism, the benefits to the institution may be short-lived.

ESG priorities and public image

For many years, British museums have relied on oil and gas sponsors, such as Shell and BP, to support their exhibits. Despite promises to achieve carbon neutrality and prioritize other ESG responsibilities, sponsorship of these companies often sparks public anger, as evidenced by regular protests at the British Museum, where BP has been a sponsor for many years. over 30 years.

The National Portrait Gallery’s recent termination of its sponsorship with BP was likely influenced by these public pressures. Other arts institutions such as the Tate, Scottish Ballet and the Southbank Center have also disassociated themselves from their sponsors following criticism.

While BP’s latest sponsorship withdrawal highlights the environmental controversies that can arise with sponsorship affiliations, public criticism of donors is not limited to oil and gas companies. This has been highlighted recently as institutions rush to disassociate themselves from the Sackler name, which is tainted due to the family company’s development of OxyContin, a powerful opioid.

Interference/influence from corporate sponsors

One of the risks is that a corporate sponsor will try to influence the museum’s narrative, successfully or not. In 2015, it emerged that Shell, one of the Science Museum’s main sponsors, had made recommendations for the museum’s exhibit on global warming. The Science Museum has publicly stated that no changes were subsequently made to any exhibits, but came under further scrutiny when it emerged that the sponsorship agreement included a “clause of non-disparagement”, preventing the museum from making any statement that could discredit or damage reputation. of the godfather.

The example of the science museum reveals how accepting support from corporate sponsors can influence public perception of the institution. Museums perform a difficult balancing act to secure revenue streams while pursuing sustainable and ethical priorities and operating under increasing public scrutiny. Charities should also be aware of their legal obligations to act in the best interests of the charity and consider whether sponsorship revenue can be properly classified as charitable. Given the importance of independence and transparency, institutions should exercise due diligence when selecting their sponsors and consider the true cost of any benefits offered to them.

London’s National Portrait Gallery ends BP sponsorship after 30 years