Tate & Trust: How Can Trust be Repaired When It’s Lost?

It’s Monday. 28th of June.

19:15. A procession is headed towards the Manton entrance of Tate Britain, situated on Atterbury street in London. The performers are dressed in all black with black veils covering their faces. They walk slowly, carrying containers with the British Petroleum (BP) logo. When they reach the stairs of the entrance they spill the contents — a thick and sticky substance, resembling petrol — shocking journalists, visitors and other bystanders as the action unfolds.

19:20. Two other women make their way to the drinks reception inside the gallery which is attended by approximately two hundred people. Suddenly, the same oily substance spills from beneath their colourful dresses. In a loud and steady voice, they reassure the visitors that it is ‘just a small spill’ as they try to clean it using their hands and shoes. The action continues for around half an hour before they are asked to leave the premises, accompanied by security guards.

These actions were a coordinated performance piece by the members of the activist artist network Liberate Tate which protested against Tate’s funding from BP. Tate is the biggest cultural institution in the United Kingdom, home to the national collection of British art, as well as some of the most famous international modern and contemporary art. BP is a British multinational oil and gas company, one of the world’s seven supermajors. BP was also one of Tate’s oldest sponsors as their partnership started back in 1990.

Still image from Liberate Tate’s performance Licence to Spill, 28. 06. 2010.

The performance described above, titled Licence to Spill, took place during Tate’s Annual Summer Party in 2010 which also hosted another celebration during the same time — twenty years of BP sponsorship. The performers aimed to intervene in the public consciousness by exposing the ethical failures within the infrastructure of the institution, in particular its willingness to turn a blind eye to major environmental issues. Pointing towards the dangers of such a partnership, the group managed to launch a discussion in the public sphere and the media regarding the consequences of letting this issue pass unnoticed, such as the continual ecological damages and Tate’s supposed obliviousness towards its implicit compliance with the climate crisis.

The group members came together after a workshop in January 2010 on art and activism, commissioned by Tate. Since then they have operated mainly on site at Tate venues by staging live performances and interventions.

When Tate curators tried to censor the workshop from making interventions against Tate sponsors, the incensed participants decided to continue their work together beyond the workshop and set up ‘Liberate Tate’.

Three months after their formation as a group, on the 20th of April, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, under BP directive, became the largest marine oil spill in American history. This put even more pressure on Tate management to reconsider their ethical workings, funding mechanisms and, ultimately, to alter their stance with regards to sponsorship from unethical or untrustworthy organisations and companies. This process, however, was slow, and its consequences became palpable much later.

Despite the declaration in 2011 that BP will continue to sponsor Tate until at least 2017, it was announced on the 11th of March 2016 that the sponsorship will draw to an end. This was, however, a small victory for the devoted artists and activists who supported the campaign. It took six years for the institution to take serious steps towards liberating itself from the dirty money. After it lost a case at a freedom of information tribunal, Tate was forced to put into the spotlight BP’s exact figures of sponsorship. Nevertheless, this happened only after a three-year legal battle, which aimed to show for the first time how much money BP had paid Tate over a 17-year period (the total being £3.8 million — an insignificant amount compared to Tate’s overall income and spending). Even then, after the Board announced that Tate will no longer be sponsored by BP, the oil company desperately tried to conceal the incentive behind this decision. A BP spokeswoman said that the conclusion to end the sponsorship was unrelated to any pressure from activists and described the action as merely ‘a business decision’. This not only undermined the crucial place of artists, activists and gallery-goers, who continually expressed their increasing concerns and disagreement, but also put Tate in a position where it lost the trust of that community.

One of Tate’s main ethical principles is that they ‘have a duty to the public to be transparent and accountable, and always to act in the public interest.’ Nevertheless, the decision to renounce BP’s funding, despite being a long-awaited goal, carried a series of consequences which did not comply with the presumed principles of the gallery. Evidently, they did not provide the information about their partnership with BP willingly, furthermore warping the truth about the main force behind the outcome (namely, the crucial social impact of the public itself). Tate’s Ethics Policy claims that ‘our ability to maintain a strong relationship of trust with our public is critical to our ability to fulfil our mission.’ This is where Tate failed. In order to restore the public’s trust and its position as a reliable partner in the eyes of its corporate associates, as well as its status in the cultural industry and its international reputation, Tate had to make amends to its highest decision-making operatives.

Glen Tarman, a member of Liberate Tate, writes,

The body that should be taking leadership to end BP’s involvement with Tate is the Tate Board of Trustees, the legal entity responsible for running Tate. (…) Tate Trustees are required by law to act as guardians of the public interest.

This matter, however, resided in a suspicious grey area, as the Chairman of the Tate Board of Trustees was Lorde Browne — BP’s former CEO. This leads to questions regarding the integrity of the Board and mainly their decisions in terms of moral and ethical principles connected with sponsorship from oil companies. As a charity, Tate carries responsibility for its course of action, presenting itself as an institution which is not only transparent in its doings, but is also a loyal advocate for protecting human rights, preventing ecological crisis and safeguarding clear and honest relationships with both the public, in the face of its clients and audiences, and with its corporate partners. Giving such a high position to the former CEO of an oil company, which is opposed by a large number of people, only served to damage the gallery’s reputation. One of the strategic moves which helped Tate gain its trust after the (continuous) BP scandal was Lorde Browne’s retirement as a trustee in 2017.

Another approach to fulfil the public’s demands for a truly transparent infrastructure was to allow for an open dialogue with its audiences, to request constant feedback and to review its policies on a regular basis (be that its equality and diversity policy, its ethical policy or other rules and procedures).

Despite the efforts put into amending the lost trust of its community of visitors, business partners, commissioned artists and the larger public, Tate still has a long way to go to restore that trust and consequently its position and reputation as a leading global cultural instituion. In order to do that, there are a couple of things which need to happen in order for the gallery to prove the true intentions behind its decisions and to demonstrate its readiness for change.

No matter how big or small an institution is, taking responsibility for one’s actions is a necessary part which needs to be embedded in the core of their infrastructure. That means being responsible not only for their decisions as an employer, but also for any misconduct which their employees, close partners or other recipients, may experience. Making changes to the infrastructure without demonstrating that they have truly understood the issue and are consciously acting to change any faults, is not a credible guarantee that they are capable of preventing similar mistakes in the future.

Secondly, after the error has been recognised, one needs to acknowledge its consequences and to show preparedness to tackle the difficulties which will follow. For example, through an open declaration which will clearly explain their changed course of action and will indicate amendments in their infrastructural mechanisms. Such a statement will serve not only as proof of the steps they are taking but will also imrpove and strengthen the transparent quality of their ethos.

It also goes without saying that a react-adapt-overcome strategy needs to be implemented in order to be able to deal efficiently with any issues or obstacles which arise along the way. This means that an instant response is crucial for determining the possibilities for action and to choose the less harmful path. In other words, had Tate reacted earlier to the uprising of distrust towards its decision-making and had it not spent years for dealing with the BP controversy, chances are that it would have preserved its reputation in the eyes of the public as an institution, which is dedicated to its principles and adapts promptly and adequately to any challenges it faces.

To an outsider’s eye, Tate is still a renowned institution, home to some of the most significant art pieces in the world, and a devoted advocate for the place of the arts (and culture more broadly) in modern-day society and politics. On the inside, however, there remain a great deal of flaws and discrepancies which need to be worked through. It is inevitable that a large institution with many voices determining its character, both internal and external, would appear to be inconsistent and unfair in its doings and would experience hardship at some point. Nevertheless, this should not by any means serve as an excuse, simply rather an acknowledgement of the factors and forces which play a role in creating the prerequisites for such drawbacks. I aimed to demonstrate one of the important ones — the question about where a charity with such high ideals and beliefs should be taking its funds from. Nonetheless, a lot was left unsaid. For example, the topic of managing programming, events, what (and whose) works are being exhibited, as well as how are the funds being distributed, especially in the current uncertain times of a post-pandemic when many people particularly in the culture industry were left unemployed and neglected.

Although I have barely scratched the surface of such a discussion, I believe that the suggestions made in this essay would be beneficial not only for the case at hand but also for other situations with similar circumstances where trust has been broken and immediate action needs to be taken in order to be gradually restored.

Bibliography:

Khomami, Nadia, ‘BP to end Tate sponsorship after 26 years’ (11. 03. 2016) in The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/11/bp-to-end-tate-sponsorship-climate-protests> [accessed 29th January 2021]

Liberate Tate, Licence to Spill, (Tate Britain, 28. 06. 2010) < http://www.liberatetate.org.uk/performances/licence-to-spill-june-2010/> [accessed 11 January 2021]

Liberate Tate, Where it all Began <http://www.liberatetate.org.uk/about/> [accessed 11 January 2021]

Tarman, Glen, ‘A Question Of 21st Century Leadership And Governance’ (pp. 54–59) in Not If But When: Culture Beyond Oil, 27. 11. 2011 <https://platformlondon.org/cbo.pdf> [accessed 28th January 2021]

The Tate Gallery, Tate Ethics Policy <*2_-_ethics_policy_march_2020.pdf>

The Tate Gallery, About Tate <https://www.tate.org.uk/about-us>

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Writing from the 100 Leaders of Tomorrow selected through the St. Gallen Symposium’s Wings of Excellence Essay contest. The St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award is the world’s most prestigious essay competition aimed at graduate students.

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Kalina Todorova

Kalina Todorova

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