This article was first published in the October 2019 UK edition of 
Accounting and Business magazine.

The ethics involved in the current difficulties between the arts and business is wonderfully confused and brimming with paradox. The arts – the UK creative industries – are bigger than the oil and gas industry, the life science industries and the automotive and aeronautics industries all put together. It is big business in itself.

The business world, broadly speaking, likes the arts. It sponsors them, in part seeking a softer and more interesting image for themselves. Also, by associating themselves with the arts, business aims to create better understanding; the public knows what the arts are about but tends not to understand business.

So over the years this relationship has been seen as good news all round: business sponsors the blockbuster exhibitions at the major museums and galleries, the museums and galleries put on ever more ambitious shows, and the public gets to see wondrous things.

Until very recently this was a very effective, productive and happy relationship. Then two things happened. In the UK, the government, while encouraging arts organisations to raise more funds from the private sector, spotted that they were doing this successfully and, instead of offering praise and support, promptly slashed the cash that used to come from government. The British Museum lost around a third of its public funding in under a decade.

Secondly, public opinion started to round on business. As one novelist put it when referring to the hedge fund that decided to step down after a decade and a half of sponsoring the nation’s most prestigious literary award: ‘They’re kind of the enemy.’ So arts organisations started to find their funding hit from both sides, both private and public.Suddenly trusts deriving their income from pharmaceutical companies that had sustained arts organisations for decades were declared personae non gratae. And oil companies started to be tarred, if that is the right word, with the same sort of brush.

Acute difficulties

The difficulties for arts organisations are acute. One of the reasons for their existence is to open their collections and their knowledge and expertise to as wide a number of people as possible. Sir Richard Lambert is chairman of the British Museum, which has long had oil giant BP as a major supporter. He is also a one-time editor of the Financial Times.

He sees both sides. BP, he pointed out during the summer, has supported exhibitions that allowed nearly five million people to come and see objects at the British Museum. ‘It’s very important and valuable to us,’ he said.

In this world, paradoxes abound. The Tate galleries, which had severed their 27-year link with BP, declared a ‘climate emergency’ in the aftermath of the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations earlier in the year and, after meeting artists including sculptor Antony Gormley, got involved in a group called Culture Declares. This is a broad-based coalition ranging from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and The Old Vic theatre to the Druid Network. One of its objectives is to get people to sign up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). BP, of course, had already signed up several years ago. Meanwhile Gormley has a huge retrospective of his work opening this autumn at the Royal Academy. It is being sponsored by global bank BNP Paribas, which has also committed to the SDGs.

The circle of paradoxes goes round and round. Tate Modern and the British Museum both attracted almost six million visitors last year, many of them from overseas, flying in using oil companies’ products. Possibly the wisest words came from Sir Ian Blatchford, CEO of the Science Museum. Immediately after the UK had recorded its highest-ever temperatures he outlined the museum’s longstanding work on sustainability and made it clear that sponsors, like BP and Shell, were part of the solution, not the problem.

‘We believe the right approach,’ he said, ‘is to engage, debate and challenge companies, governments and individuals to do more to make the global economy less carbon-intensive.’

The ethical questions in all this go round and round. There is no definitive answer. In the end the creative industries, a massive economic powerhouse, have to find their own, well-informed, solutions.

Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist.