Art and sponsorship: where do our ethics lie?


I went to see the ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up’ exhibition at the V&A this summer. I loved it as a showcase of Frida’s true self; an unapologetic artistic pioneer. V&A corporate sponsorship starts at £14,000 a year and so is hugely imperative to the workings of the gallery. Some of the sponsors include the Bank of America, Rothschild & Co, Brown Shipley and Ernst & Young who have been faced with controversy their CEO’s salaries, accounting policies and tax affairs. Kahlo despised the greed of capitalism and was a rampant socialist – but would she change her mind about capitalism, knowing that it allowed the funding of galleries and let people see her art? Or would she feel scorn, in the realisation that her views and beliefs have become historical tokens, with no one thinking that they have any true worth in our society? The difficulty with these gallery sponsorships is that one can easily be admiring an anti-establishment artwork funded by the very people whom the artist was trying to criticise.

I believe that art is elitist.

On the TATE’s ‘Corporate Partnership’ web page, the gallery boasts that it ‘is one of the world’s most popular art brands’, a “brand”, not a provider of culture or education, but a business which happens to delve into art and was created purely from the profits of Henry Tate’s sugar business. The TATE have put on a variety of BP Displays, with BP being one of the oil “supermajors” and holding the 8th largest turnover of any company in the world. It therefore seems more likely that BP dabble in the art world to mask their ethically questionable work than because they have an emotional attachment to the art culture of Britain. Moreover, the people who attend these displays are limited in being able to stand up against such sponsorship. People who want to view art should not have to assess the ethical righteousness of their actions.

TATE has also had sponsorship from Ernst & Young, Deutsche Bank and Microsoft – the dependence it has on businesses that revolve around finance undermines the art industry itself, it suggests that it is merely an asset of the financial sector, rather than an important part of British culture in its own right.

People who want to view art should not have to assess the ethical righteousness of their actions.

I believe that art is elitist. Not because art itself is, but because the culture surrounding it makes it so. This corporatisation of something which is traditionally about self-expression and freedom isolates people. Just like the expenses scandal in the political sphere, this type of business turns art into a commercialised sector, available for anyone to take power over it as long as they’ve got deep pockets. In doing so, art becomes even more elitist as the majority feel no sense of a relationship or can relate to it. And what does this do to the already hierarchical structure of the art world? It intensifies it. The bigger the financial support, the better the art you can acquire hence more visitors. There is a reason why some of the best art galleries in the world are located in London, the centre of finance. We live in a democracy but our art is definitely not democratised.

Yet, we must look at art galleries in the context of our own society. Taking any of these cultural institutions as an example – theatres, museums, shops – they all have sponsorship and have gained wealth through these ethically questionable means. It could be said that it is naïve and unequal to judge galleries based on an action that many institutions take.

We live in a democracy but our art is definitely not democratised.

But is this a docile thought? Change only happens when people make it happen. Perhaps this issue is nothing, perhaps we should accept that money and lack of ethics comes hand in hand, perhaps I am overreacting. But then again, critiquing this issue may make people realise that we don’t want art to be associated with corruption and mega-capitalism; we want it to be an institution of our own. As for me, I don’t want to visit a gallery, look at the art and think, ‘I can only see this artwork because a billionaire allowed me to’. I want to see art for how the artist intended and allow my thought to fill the canvas.

Image from Google via Creative Commons

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