USA: Climate change sculpture removed after upsetting donors

13 December 2012

Does corporate sponsorships by companies like BP and Shell have an impact on artistic freedom in the UK and USA? After a controversial climate change art installation was removed from a US university campus because it upset donors from the energy industry, Kevin Smith, co-editor of Not If But When – Culture Beyond Oil, is strongly convinced it does. The following is a summary of an article he published on Index on Censorship’s website on 16 November 2012.

British artist Chris Drury’s 11 metres wide sculpture ‘Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around’ had barely been installed at the University of Wyoming in 2011 before it was removed again, without warning and after less than a year, in May 2012.

As seen on the photo above, the installation consisted of a flat whirlpool of logs “spiraling into a vortex of charred, black wood and studded with large lumps of Wyoming coal”, meant to represent natural and human-induced global warming.

Initially the university claimed the sculpture was removed because of water damage, but in October 2012 a local radio investigation obtained e-mails which revealed that the university actually had decided to remove the Carbon Sink sculpture ‘because of the controversy it generated’. The university had bowed to pressure from both the local mining industry — a major university donor — and outraged local Republican officials.

As such, according to Kevin Smith, the removal of the sculpture was a demonstration of how the oil, gas and mining industries exert influence over the cultural sector, and how this influence “can lead to institutions buckling under political pressure, censoring art and lying to the public.”

On 13 September 2012 the New York Times gave another example of how influence is exerted, when it revealed that the “estimated spending on television ads promoting coal and more oil and gas drilling or criticising clean energy had exceeded $153 million this year.”

Increasing donations from energy sector
Chris Drury’s sculpture was “a provocative installation in a state where the fossil fuel industry is a major economic driver and the sculpture immediately generated controversy,” wrote Kevin Smith: “It’s worth noting that in the fiscal year 2011 the university received 43.1 million US dollars in private donations via the University of Wyoming Foundation.” When releasing the figures, fund president Ben Blaylock said donations from the energy sector were on the increase.

In the UK, some of the most high profile arts sponsorship deals have been with the oil industry, wrote Smith: “The Tate galleries have taken money from oil giant BP for more than 20 years. At the end of 2011, BP announced a 10 million British pounds deal for four arts institutions, including Tate, over five years. BP also sponsors the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery, while Shell is a long-term sponsor of the Southbank Centre.”

“One can only speculate what the response might be from BP if Tate Modern were to use the iconic Turbine Hall for a large installation that explicitly referenced the environmental and human rights abuses of the oil industry,” commented Kevin Smith who also mentioned a case from 2010, where Tate gallery staff sought to ensure that a workshop on disobedience didn’t go anywhere near the issue of the gallery’s sponsors — accidentally giving birth to the art-activist collective Liberate Tate in the process.
“Incensed by censorship and hypocrisy”
According to the Liberate Tate group, Tate has stated in a reply to a Freedom of Information Act request that it has received more representations raising concerns about BP’s sponsorship than any other issue since the oil company became linked with the gallery in 1990.

Liberate Tate calls for the Tate to drop its sponsorship agreement with BP. In March 2010, Tate Modern ran an eco-symposium, ‘Rising to the Climate Change Challenge: Artists and Scientists Imagine Tomorrow’s World’ on the same day that Tate Britain was celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship with one of its ‘BP Saturdays’.

“Incensed by this censorship and hypocrisy, participants in the symposium called for a vote: 80% of the audience agreed that BP sponsorship be dropped by 2012,” the group wrote in a press release.
Photo: Courtesy of Chris Drury

Liberate Tate – 6 December 2012:
What happened after 8,000 Tate members and visitors wrote an open letter calling on Tate to break links with BP?
Index on Censorship – 16 November 2012:
US artwork that angered energy industry pulled — could it happen here?
A controversial climate change sculpture was removed after it upset donors from the energy industry in the US. Kevin Smith asks whether corporate sponsorship by companies like BP and Shell has an affect on artistic freedom in the UK
IFEX / Index on Censorship – 20 November 2012:
Climate change art installation removed from US university campus

Time out – 22 July 2010:
Murky waters
One of the leading corporate sponsors of art, BP is now the focus for protests. But it’s just the most newsworthy example of an ugly art world reality, says Ossian Ward


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