Funding the arts – what is it worth?

Yesterday was Shakespeare’s Birthday. And, fittingly, it was the launch day for the World Shakespeare Festival – a celebration of Shakespeare as the world’s playwright.

But not everyone in the arts is celebrating. A group of actors, playwrights and others from the arts community used the anniversary to criticise the Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to accept corporate sponsorship from BP.

In a letter to the Guardian they argue that “what should be an unabashed celebration of Shakespeare’s continued relevance to our world has been sullied by the fact that the festival is sponsored by BP”.

Protest group the ‘Reclaim Shakespeare Company’ agrees. The night before Shakespeare’s birthday they surprised audience and actors alike by taking the stage just before the RSC’s performance of The Tempest to challenge their decision to accept sponsorship from BP.

So, why the concern? Groups point to the devastation to ecosystems and communities caused by the Deepwater Horizon Spill, and BP’s controversial extraction of tar sands oil.

This isn’t the first protest about BP’s sponsorship of the arts. After the Gulf of Mexico spill various groups protested at the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery about their acceptance of BP money.

But, with funding for the arts severely cut by the Government, and corporate sponsorship being in short supply, can arts organisations really afford to be picky about where the money comes from? Can beggars afford to be choosers?

Yes, say Reclaim Shakespeare Company. They point to the time when sponsorship by tobacco companies became socially unacceptable. The arts managed then, and would manage again if they walked away from sponsorship by big oil.

The question is though, where do you draw the line? I don’t like that fact that BP, with its track record, is a ‘sustainability partner’ for the London 2012 Olympics. In fact I think it’s a joke. But what sort of money is acceptable? The only companies with money to spend on arts sponsorships tend to be big international corporations. But to get to this size and have this disposable income they’ve typically put profits and shareholders first at the expense of health, employees, the environment etc.

Should we be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the arts, and try and ignore where the money comes from? Or should we boycott the arts paid for by organisations we dislike? I can’t pretend to have the answer. What I do know is the question isn’t going to go away any time soon.


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