29 June 2010

Museums as Money Laundering Institutions

"Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering,
a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways."
~ Rebecca Solnit

There seems to be a dust up in London over the fact that the Tate Museum receives - and has for decades - large sums of money from British Petroleum. A longish list of art world denizens published this letter in The Guardian yesterday protesting the arrangement. The missive, and accompanying stories about protests at BP funding at Tate Britain and National Portrait Gallery, has promoted this robust retort supporting BP.

I am not sure how such things work in the UK, but here in the US companies get tax write-offs for charitable contributions. There may be PR benefits as well. (My view is that you ought to be able to either take the tax credit or have your name publicized, but not both.) And I have little doubt that 'not offending the sponsors' works its way, insidiously and unself-consciously into the minds of curators and artists.

The questions I have for the letter writers (whose complaints about corporate funding I largely endorse) is this: How do you differentiate clean from dirty when it comes to vast sums of wealth? Sure oil companies are an easy target. But where do you think all those wealthy patrons who buy your product (whether that be art, writing, labor, expertise, creativity, vision, or whatever) for galleries, magazines, catalogs, museums, concert halls, and so forth got their money? Do you think the funding that pays your rent is sanitized in some way?

On this matter I live in a glass house. I work at a University that gets funding and does business with all sorts of disreputable entities. All the Colleges and Universities where I studied keep similarly sketchy company. So, I am in the same boat. I think we need to dispense with the moralism. What precisely is the alternative you propose? Government funding for the arts? Some sort of list of 'socially responsible' patrons? (How, in constructing such a list, do we decide which sins are the most egregious?) The art world (and the intellectual world more generally) is, let's face it thoroughly infused with commercial and political pressures. What is the alternative you are proposing?
P.S.: I know that Solnit is among the signatories to the letter.

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Blogger Brenda said...

Government funding, yes.

30 June, 2010 02:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that with government funding you run into the same quagmire: US= world's largest arms dealer, UK = number 4 on the same list. So government funding means paying for museums with the blood of innocent civilians being killed the world over by weapons we profit from through sale. BP's not a great deal different, other than that it's remit is to pursue profit and a government's is to defend it's citizen's liberties and rights (which they largely try not to do).

30 June, 2010 10:04  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I am with Stanley on this one. Not only are "public" hands hardly clean, but when the US government gets its hands on arts funding we get the sort of travesty that erupted around Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s or around Serra's "Tilted Arc" [. . .]

When I ask about alternative funding regimes, the point is that, while I may not like having rich patrons being in charge, the options are not necessarily more attractive.

30 June, 2010 11:22  
Blogger Tom White said...

A photographer once told me he had no qualms about taking a high paying commercial job from Nike (a company he ethically deplored) as it gave him the money to go and work in Afghanistan for several months, something he would not have been able to do otherwise. Are we all hypocrites? It's a strange dilemma and one with no easy answer.

Except for the answer, of course, that all money is evil and dirty and the monetary system is inherently oppressive and the sooner we abolish it and live in a peaceful, harmonious, culturally rich and diverse world with respect and progress for our minds bodies and souls the driving force instead of the greed and wealth accumulation of the present society the better off we all will be.

30 June, 2010 11:49  
Blogger Steven Brown said...

Agreed on both the public and government comments. Under a capitalist system, capital dictates its own ethics, whether we like it or not. But capital is not without its nemeses. This is the beautiful thing about art. It doesn’t play by the same rules of value. (See J.S.G. Boggs and his hand-crafted counterfeits.) That big oil pays museums for tax right-offs is not the way we’d like to see art funded. But the power relation between these two warrants some hope for the reformation of social value. Art doesn’t pay big oil. It’s not a two-way relationship (in most cases). I take some solace in that. And I have to agree with Gramsci here: essentially, capitalism nourishes its own subversion.

03 July, 2010 09:43  

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