The Tate BP PR in Tatters

The Tate’s dirty little secret is now out in the public gaze, and the gallery stands humiliated, exposed and excoriated before the world, forced by the Information Tribunal to reveal under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) the BP financial sponsorship, which it was struggling desperately to withhold.

“Little” is perhaps the key word here, as estimates of £500,000 or so BP annual sponsorship deflated to the reality of a puny £330,000 in 2006 (the latest year for which figures were revealed) for the polluting oil giant’s privilege of mugging every visitor to Tate Britain with its corporate marketing.

The gallery’s website headlines “Discover the world’s greatest collection of British art at Tate Britain” and immediately launches into “Our free BP Displays are open every day and comprise of two elements – the BP Walk through British Art; where you can experience Britain’s greatest artists, and the BP Spotlights; where you will find an intimate opportunity to explore an artist or theme in-depth”. This surely has to be one of the most disgraceful, shameless and brazen violations of intellectual integrity in living museum memory.

In 2006-7, the Trustee accounts claim 1,665,705 visitors to Tate Britain (I went half a dozen times, so that should actually be 1,665,700). This works out at just under 20p per visitor to hijack 500 years of British art, and that is without the 806,000 Tate website visitors in 2006 (“The number-one arts website in the UK”).

The oil firm’s contribution amounted to only 0.74% of Tate’s “self-generated” income. Nevertheless, the Tate is fervent in acknowledging its current Trustee chair’s former commercial empire, but somewhat more reticent in acknowledging its main outside funder, namely us via our government, whose grant-in-aid in 2006-7 was £30,700,000, i.e. 93 times as much as BP contributed. Surely the BP in Tate’s displays should stand for British Public.


Stuckist demo placard at Tate Britain 2010.

The current FOI ruling and the Tate’s behaviour leading up to it has served to draw attention yet again to its institutional resistance to openness and accountability – despite Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota’s proud boast: “We’re a more open organization than any equivalent organization in the world … we’re at the forefront of being as open as we possibly can.”

That was said in 2008 in the somewhat arcane environment of Varsity, the Cambridge student paper. I have not seen anything quite so bold by him in media of wider circulation. It followed a previous FOI request which I made in 2005 to obtain the price paid by the Tate to acquire its serving trustee Chris Ofili’s work, The Upper Room.

FOI requests go in stages of appeal if the institution declines to release the information on the first demand (assuming, that is, if the enquirer has the stamina to see the exhausting process through). The first stage of appeal is to an internal committee of the institution. If the request is still declined, an appeal can be made to the Information Commissioner. The fourth stage of appeal by the frustrated enquirer (or the angry institution if it has not got its own way) is to the Information Tribunal.

In the case of Tate’s BP sponsorship the case went to the fourth stage where barristers lock horns in a court setting and reiterate the various clauses of the Freedom of Information Act. In this case the barrister opposing the Tate was Brendan Montague of Request Initiative, supported by arts activism charity Platform, one of whose spokespersons is Kevin Smith.

Tate’s Head of Legal, Richard Aydon, seemed to think he was in a Monty Python sketch and warned the Tribunal that providing the sponsorship figures might lead to an increased risk of accidental injury through slips or trips, because it would result in more protests. (There is no evidence I am aware of that any previous protests have led to slips or trips – either BP protests or the Turner Prize protests I have instigated for the last 15 years.)

It might be thought that this decision will now show the Tate that it must be genuinely accountable to the public which owns it, funds it, visits it and has every right to scrutinise it. However, previous experience indicates that will not be the case.

My 2005 FOI request was initially declined, so I then took it to the Tate’s internal appeal committee with a case expounded over 40 pages of A4 type and around 18,000 words. I kicked off with a quote from the Information Commissioner’s Awareness Guidance No 3, which is every bit as telling today as it was then:

“Aim for a change of culture. FOI is designed to change the default position from the need to know to the right to know. Embracing the new culture of openness will involve challenging the way in which things have been done in the past. This may involve a review of how protective marking systems are operated in practice, review of the circumstances under which confidentiality clauses are accepted in dealings with private sector suppliers, or taking a fresh look at how the formulation of policy can be opened up to greater public scrutiny. The important point to grasp is that the public interest does not have a fixed meaning and that FOIA is designed to shift the balance in favor of greater openness.” [words in bold in the original text]

The internal appeal stage is as far as it got. I received a reply from the then-Chairman of Trustees, Paul (now Lord) Myners, who wrote with a disarming lack of self-importance: “After careful consideration we have concluded that, in this case of the purchase of work by a serving trustee, we should release this information in the wider and legitimate public interest. We are not perfect: your argument was persuasive.”

There speaks a statesman and confident man of the world with a conscience and consideration for public duty. Unfortunately the current Chairman of Trustees, Lord Browne of Madingley, has a rather less impressive track record, including narrowly escaping perjury charges in court, when, in his words, “I was ashamed and embarrassed … I just could not bring myself to tell the truth.”

That was the cause of his resignation as chief executive of BP after 40 years with the company. This hardly makes him a disinterested party when it comes to questions of BP sponsorship. Nor does his admitted character weakness with its grave error of putting image over integrity give one much confidence in a role of assessing whether information disclosure is in the public interest, especially when it might be embarrassing to the institution he chairs (not to mention the institution he ran for four decades) – bearing in mind that institutional embarrassment is specifically mentioned in the FOIA as not being a reason to withhold disclosure of information.


Paul (now Lord) Myners (left), Sir Nicholas Serota (right).

The Tate’s disclosure in 2005 led to purchase prices being listed in the annual report thereafter (without causing the gallery any great catastrophe, it might be noted) but does not seem to have registered very deeply with the institution as a principle or the current case over BP would never have ground on.

This is not the only thing the Tate has failed to learn from bitter experience. Its PR has also failed dismally, just as it did in 2005, when, if I been running the Tate to aid my cause and undermine theirs, I could not have done any better than they did themselves.

Had the Tate come clean instantly, there would have been some kerfuffle and then everything would have died down fairly quickly. However, they initially resisted every step of the way, with information dragged out over a protracted period, and every new revelation serving merely to give the press another opportunity to re-run the story with a bit more added on, until Myners saw sense and put a stop to the process before yet further damaging publicity ensued (a pity – I was rather looking forward to the Information Tribunal.)

The best example of this mismanagement was the Turner Prize in 2005, when Sir Nicholas Serota, blatantly ignoring the proper purpose of the event, decided, as Andrew Marr put it, “to break into an angry defence of Ofili and the purchasing decision”. The Ofili issue had gone quiet by then, but the papers dutifully re-ran it.

I have to make a confession that I and fellow Stuckists could have been to blame here, as our usual anti-Turner Prize demo that day had been changed to an anti-Trustee purchase prize demo, which Serota had innocently approached and then stood in front of me with what appeared to be suppressed rage, when he realised the demo’s true purpose.

One of my colleagues, John Bourne, a compassionate person, was sufficiently moved to write to Serota to confirm that our intention was not to cause personal distress but to assert principles we believed in. Serota replied that he appreciated the letter.


Stuckist demonstration at Tate Britain 2005.

The Tate’s PR has been no better this time round. Had it acceded from the outset to the request for the BP sponsorship figures, the whole affair would now be yesterday’s chip paper (or would be, were it not for those neat cardboard boxes they use nowadays).

As it is, the Tate has once again succeeded in protracting the issue until it managed to gain the widest public platform on which to reveal just how furtive, dictatorial, arrogant and insular it is. Chairmen and trustees come and go. The only constant in all this is Serota, the director in place for an unhealthy 26 years without any need for re-election. For someone who is normally deified as a high achiever, he fails dismally at what for most people would be a fairly effortless task of “being as open as we possibly can”.

Other organisations, including the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Natural History museum, have received similar FOIA requests and have communicated the requested material promptly. If you were surprised to hear that, it is simply a testament to what is effectively highly savvy and efficient PR which has managed with an open and honest response to generate nil confrontation and hence nil controversy and nil bad publicity, in fact nil publicity at all as far as I can make out. “Museum provides boring sponsorship figures” is hardly headline stuff.

Presumably the Tate director does not see these other institutions as “equivalent” organizations to his own. A cynic might even suggest that Serota, the seemingly bland bureaucrat, is an attention seeker who thrives on controversial publicity, which would explain why he is at the forefront of being as obstructive as he possibly can.

Charles Thomson is co-founder of the Stuckists art group

Paul Myners photo: courtesy Fraser Kee Scott.

Published in association with The Jackadaw magazine.


Charles Thomson is co-founder of The Stuckists.