Last month, the National Portrait Gallery announced the termination of its partnership with the oil and gas giant BP, a partner since 1990, with effect from December 2022.

Museums and galleries have long relied on corporate sponsors to provide income streams and other benefits to the arts sector. Funding has become ever more critical against the backdrop of public spending cuts and the Covid-19 pandemic. When sponsors become the subject of increased controversy and criticism, however, the benefits to the institution can be short-lived.

ESG priorities and Public Image

For many years, UK museums have relied on oil and gas sponsors, such as Shell and BP, to support their exhibitions. Despite promises to achieve carbon neutrality and to prioritise other ESG responsibilities, sponsorship from these companies often ignites public anger, as evidenced by the regular demonstrations that have been staged at the British Museum, where BP have been a sponsor for over 30 years.

The National Portrait Gallery’s recent termination of its sponsorship with BP was likely influenced by these public pressures. Other arts institutions such as the Tate, Scottish Ballet and Southbank Centre have also disassociated themselves from their corporate sponsors following criticism.

Whilst the latest withdrawal of BP sponsorship highlights the environmental controversies which can arise with sponsorship affiliations, public criticism of donors is not limited to oil and gas businesses. This has been highlighted recently as institutions rush to disassociate themselves with the Sackler name, which is tainted due to the family company’s development of OxyContin, a powerful opioid.

Interference/Influence of Corporate Sponsors

One risk is that a corporate sponsor may try to influence the museum’s narrative, whether or not successfully. In 2015 it emerged that Shell, a major sponsor of the Science Museum, had made recommendations for the museum’s exhibition on global warming. The Science Museum commented publicly that no changes were subsequently made to any exhibition but were subjected to further scrutiny when it emerged that the sponsorship agreement included a “non-disparagement clause”, preventing the museum from making any statement which might discredit or damage the reputation of the sponsor.

The Science Museum example reveals how accepting support from corporate sponsors may impact public perception of the institution. Museums perform a difficult balancing act in securing income streams while pursuing sustainable and ethical priorities and operating under increasing public scrutiny. Charitable organisations must also be mindful of their legal obligations to act in the charity’s best interests and consider whether the sponsorship income can be correctly classified as charitable. Given the importance of independence and transparency, institutions should undertake careful due diligence in selecting their sponsors and consider the true cost of any benefits they are offered.