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Legal victory: Court orders Tate to disclose BP sponsorship figures

  • Information Tribunal gives Tate 35 days to disclose sums of BP sponsorship from 1990-2006

  • Tate argued in court that disclosure of internal decision-making details would cause further protests and so risk to health risk to health; Tribunal “wholly unpersuaded” by this argument

  • Tribunal ruling criticises Tate’s “protracted, misguided reliance on [an irrelevant] document”, as well as “mistaken” and “somewhat fanciful” use of Freedom of Information exemptions over details of internal decision-making.

In a ground-breaking Freedom of Information ruling, the UK’s Information Tribunal has bound Tate galleries to disclose the sum of money BP paid as a sponsor over the years 1990-2006 and details of internal decision-making on the controversial sponsorship deal. The present ruling follows an almost three-year long legal battle between Tate and campaign groups Platform and Request Initiative over Tate’s refusal to disclose sponsorship information.

In response to the ruling, Platform’s Anna Galkina said:

“We are delighted the sponsorship figures will be revealed. Tate’s sponsorship deal provides BP with a veneer of respectability when in reality it is trashing the climate, and involved with a series of environmental and human rights controversies all around the world. BP is desperate to maintain its ‘social licence’ through arts sponsorship. But Tate can do without BP, considering the deal is likely worth less than 0.5% of Tate’s budget. Sponsorship secrecy makes BP seem more indispensible than it really is – and our culture must dispense with oil corporations.”

Tate renewed BP’s sponsorship contract for five years in 2011. Director Nicholas Serota commented during BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, “you don’t abandon your friends because they have what we consider to be a temporary difficulty.” BP publicly declared it was providing £10 million over five years to four cultural institutions including Tate, which if split equally provides Tate with £500 thousand a year.

Tate’s Head of Legal Richard Aydon gave evidence to the Tribunal that disclosure of information about sponsorship would mean that “protests might intensify”, which would pose a risk to public safety and wellbeing. The Information Tribunal ruled,

“We were wholly unpersuaded by [this argument]. Mr Aydon expressed a concern about an increased risk of accidental injury, such as by slips or trips. … We see no sufficient reason to conclude that disclosure of additional information would make a material difference to that risk.”

Oil sponsorship of the arts has become an increasingly controversial issue, with figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu saying in 2014:

“People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. … We can encourage more of our universities and municipalities, foundations, corporations, individuals and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil fuel industry.”

The Tribunal’s decision also states,

“[Tate argued] that Tate would not want BP to see its activities placed under explicit scrutiny, in case BP was thereby offended in some way that might prejudice the relationship. We … consider this concern to be somewhat fanciful. We have no doubt that BP is well aware of how its activities are reported in the public domain, and of the nature of the controversies arising around them. It would be most surprising if BP expected Tate not to give careful consideration to whether any of the controversies arising from BP’s activities should impact on the continuance of the sponsorship relationship.”

A Liberate Tate art intervention took place in September at Tate ahead of the court hearing. ‘Hidden Figures’ saw over a hundred members and supporters of Liberate Tate carry out an unsolicited interpretation of Malevich’s iconic Black Square in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as a dramatic reference to Tate’s refusal to disclose information about its controversial sponsorship relationship with BP.

Liberate Tate member Glen Tarman, who made the original FOI request, said:

“I’m part of a wider effort to bring more light onto why and how it is that a major cultural institution like Tate has been hijacked by an oil company for its own corporate interests. The art museum has been holding back information due to BP and now the UK courts agree Tate has to act in the public interest.  Tate’s stated vision is to “demonstrate leadership in response to climate change” yet it’s promoting one of the three companies most responsible for climate change.

“It’s not Tate’s job to push the fossil fuel industry. It’s Tate’s job to promote public enjoyment of art. Climate change is causing massive harm and that one of the main culprits is being given our nation’s art to market itself as socially responsible is a serious matter for those that care about the deaths and human suffering climate change is bringing. Public arts institutions like Tate need to be transparent, accountable and a creative part of society’s solution to climate change not part of the problem. We need to liberate Tate from BP.”

Rosa Curling, the solicitor from Leigh Day who has been working on the case, said:

“The Tribunal has rightly recognised the importance of disclosing all sponsorship figures received by Tate from BP, between 1990 and 2006. Tate argued that these figures should be kept secret, that their disclosure would “upset” BP and deter the company and others from becoming sponsors. The Tribunal resolutely rejected this argument and has ordered that the BP sponsorship figures are now released. Our client agrees. It is crucial these sponsorship figures are in the public domain.

“The long standing relationship between BP and the Tate is controversial. Only when the public are fully informed about how much money Tate actually receives from the company, can a properly informed debate take place about whether BP is an appropriate sponsor for the art gallery and its work.”

Tate and campaigners have 28 days to appeal the Tribunal’s decision.