07/12/2010 06:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

To BP or Not to BP? Should Art Museums Accept Polluted Sponsorship?

The BP Grand Entrance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Photo: Lee Rosenbaum

Cultural institutions in Great Britain and the U.S., which until now had relied on BP, the British oil company, as a benevolent, generous patron, are now faced with decisions about how to deal with the public-relations dilemmas posed by accepting support from a company that has been demonized, due to the horrific Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the company's much criticized handling of the aftermath.

The issues now faced by previously grateful recipients of BP's philanthropy were underscored recently by a protest demonstration against a party held at the Tate Britain for the opening of a show of work by Fiona Banner. Agence France-Presse reported that "a group of artists, calling themselves 'The Good Crude Britannia,' poured a black substance -- thought to be molasses -- from cans emblazoned with the British oil giant's logo outside the... museum." The event was also billed as a celebration of 20 years of support for the Tate by BP -- a dubious party theme, given the widespread outrage sparked by the Gulf Coast disaster.

So far, British art institutions are hanging tough. John Vidal and Owen Bowcott reported in the Guardian:

The main recipients of BP's corporate largesse -- the Royal Opera House, Tate Galleries, British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery -- today issued a joint statement defending the connection and signaling their determination to preserve the commercial relationship.

It's a tough call, but I think they're right not to sever ties with BP. Cultural institutions have long been the beneficiaries of do-good aid from do-bad moguls and businesses -- from robber barons to manufacturers of cancer-causing cigarettes. Refusing their benefactions so as not to burnish their tarnished reputations is cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

With the possible exception of a direct conflict between the practices of the funder and the mission of the recipient, there should be no ethical litmus test for arts support, so long as donors don't expect paeans to their business practices along with recognition of their generosity. Some cringeworthy exhibition press materials that I've seen extol at length the virtues of the supporters' business activities, unacceptably crossing the line from grateful acknowledgment to commercial endorsement.

That said, there SHOULD be an ethical litmus test for an institution's trustees, who must be carefully vetted for probity during the selection process, to avoid the embarrassment of time served on the board being followed by time served in jail. That unfortunate sequence of events occurred for former Whitney Museum trustee L. Dennis Kozlowski, then chairman and chief executive of Tyco International.

In an interview for my 2002 Wall Street Journal profile of him, Max Anderson, then the Whitney's director, conceded that the Kozlowski debacle was a "sock in the eye" that would "change the nominating process. The trustees and I have to be much more methodical in evaluating people's intentions in joining the board, what they bring to it and what their background is."

Naming opportunities can be especially fraught with peril: Enron Field, the baseball stadium in Houston, was prudently renamed after the eponymous corporation's ignominious meltdown. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on the other hand, has shown no inclination to rename the BP Grand Entrance (pictured above) -- a component of its 2008 expansion. This unlovely canopy was aptly likened in appearance to a gas station by the New York Times' architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff:


Another BP "Grand Entrance"? Gas station at night.

But the recently opened BP Sea Otter Habitat at the Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, CA, has a dicier problem: The oil spill's destruction of aquatic habitat runs directly counter to its mission, making its name sound like the punchline of a bad joke. One can easily envision an editorial cartoon featuring an oil-soaked otter in the BP Habitat.


Image from the BP Sea Otter Habitat's website

As reported by Mike Boehm and Louis Sahagun in the Los Angeles Times, the aquarium's president, Jerry Schubel, has stated that there is no interest among his colleagues in excising BP's name. The situation was uncomfortable enough, however, to prompt the aquarium to append this statement to the Sea Otter Habitat's homepage (which bears an image of BP's corporate logo):

The nonprofit Aquarium of the Pacific is passionate about the environment, and we as an organization are focused on helping to reduce our nation's thirst for oil. We are very concerned about the disaster in the Gulf. As we have done in past oil spills, we will be sending our experts in wildlife rescue to assist the Association of Zoos & Aquariums in its Gulf efforts and will be hosting a forum in the fall to explore our nation's dependence on oil.

Four years ago BP funded the creation of the enhanced otter exhibit, which focuses on sea otter conservation. This funding allowed us to provide important ocean education and conservation information to our members and the public and the space and systems to house additional rescued sea otters. This exhibit will continue to educate millions of people and serve as a home to stranded otters for many years to come.

In the near term, I think it unlikely that art museums that don't already have commitments from BP will need to confront the dilemma of whether to accept BP sponsorship. That's because the company's shareholders, hit by the freefall in its stock price and the suspension of dividends, are unlikely to stand for such nonessential expenditures. If BP knows what's best for its tattered reputation, future philanthropic commitments over the next year or more will target efforts to improve the Gulf Coast's quality of life, which the oil spill has so grievously harmed.