Anti-BP Activists Disrupt Tate Party, Protest Oil Sponsorship

BP Protest at Tate Britain
Television crews film after a protester left graffiti outside the Tate Britain, London, on June 28, 2010. Demonstrators called for the art gallery to end its 20-year relationship with sponsor BP Plc because the energy company caused the U.S.'s worst-ever oil spill in April. Photograph: Farah Nayeri/ Bloomberg News.

Activists opposing oil company BP Plc burst into a party at London’s Tate Britain last night, spilling cans of an oil-like liquid inside and outside the gallery to protest BP’s 20-year sponsorship.

Black-clad protesters with veils over their heads splattered the party entrance with cans of treacle bearing the BP logo, then sprinkled bird feathers over the slick. Another group smuggled cans inside, under their skirts, and emptied them in Tate Britain’s columned main hall.

Meanwhile, about a dozen artists wearing black separately picketed the party. “What do we want? Liberate Tate!” they hollered. “When do we want it? Now!”

BP has shed half of its market value after causing the U.S.’s worst-ever oil spill in April. The company is a longstanding sponsor of Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery. BP has said it will maintain those London sponsorships, which together cost it more than 1 million pounds ($1.5 million) a year.

The April 20 explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico has led environmentalists and activists to step up their actions and target London institutions backed by BP.

This year’s summer party at Tate Britain celebrates two decades of BP sponsorship: The energy company has helped fund the presentation of the Millbank gallery’s permanent collection, which is regularly rehung.

Treacled Feathers

At last night’s party, while hundreds of guests sipped Pimm’s and nibbled cheese puffs, Tate Director Nick Serota watched staff neatly mop up the tarred floor and leave no trace of the earlier action. Outside, cleaners faced a tougher task, as they scrubbed well into the night and vacuumed bird feathers stuck to the treacle.

Serota said in an interview that the protesters had every right to express their views, which in some cases were long held, though “some of them have only thought about it in the last eight weeks, and they didn’t protest when we took the money 20 years ago.”

“It’s a very difficult decision for an institution to make,” he said, referring to offers of corporate funding. “There’s no money that is completely pure.”

Among the celebrity guests was Nick Rhodes of the U.K. rock group Duran Duran.

“I’d much rather the money be in the hands of the arts than a petroleum company, I can tell you that,” Rhodes said. “So anything they want to give, let’s take it.”

Also protesting outside Tate Britain tonight was Platform, which fights for social and ecological justice. Platform got 171 people from the arts community to sign a letter in yesterday’s Guardian asking Tate to stop linking the BP logo to its name.

‘Licence to Spill’

London’s arts institutions “should sever their sponsorship links with the oil industry in the way that sports and cultural institutions did with the tobacco industry over a decade ago,” said Platform campaigner Kevin Smith as he handed out leaflets labeled “Licence to Spill.”

By accepting BP’s sponsorship, Tate “legitimizes” the environmental damage done by the company, Smith said.

Earlier this month, BP agreed to establish a $20 billion fund to pay damages to victims of the oil spill. Legislators stepped up demands for more action as the number of claims for compensation increased.

Big-Screen Opera

Since 2001, BP has backed the Royal Opera House’s big-screen summer relays, which transmit live opera and ballet to thousands of outdoor viewers nationwide. When the agreement was first signed, BP paid a fee of 270,000 pounds a year for three years. By 2005, the cost was 350,000 pounds per year, according to the opera house’s head of development at the time.

At the British Museum, BP is the longest-standing corporate backer, committed since 1996 when it helped fund the Great Court redevelopment. In 1999, BP gave money and its name to a lecture theater. BP has backed shows such as “Mummy: The Inside Story” (2003); “Hadrian: Empire and Conflict” (2008); and the current “Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings.”

At the National Portrait Gallery, BP’s main focus is the BP Portrait Award, now in its 21st year, and a sponsorship renewed through 2012.

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