The Sackler Trust’s decision to suspend its UK grants amid growing controversy has helped a few high-profile arts organisations avoid some extremely difficult decisions.
The ethics of arts sponsorship has been thrown into the spotlight in recent years following protests against organisations that receive money from oil companies led by campaigners including Liberate Tate, Art Not Oil and BP or not BP?. Their high-profile – and often witty – interventions led to a number of leading theatres including London’s Royal Court and Arcola signing up to a pledge never to take sponsorship money from oil companies.
But the arts can get tangled up in some deeply uncomfortable ethical quandaries. Is a company that refuses to accept money from BP but takes from the Sackler Foundation making an implicit moral judgment that climate change is worse than the opioid crisis?
And if an organisation is willing to refuse money from Sackler on the basis that its wealth is created by Purdue Pharma, a US company accused of helping to trigger America’s opioid crisis, should that organisation also be refusing money from sources that receive money from companies that are perceived to encourage other societal ills such as gambling?
There are no hard and fast rules. What might look like hypocrisy from one organisation could seem permissible to another or even the same organisation at a different time.
Sponsorship from an oil company at a time when an arts organisation is featuring a season of work around climate change could have a very different complexion to the same organisation receiving the same money when running an unrelated programme of events.
It seems impossible for arts organisations to take money from only 100% ethical sources. Would that also not preclude some government funding and certainly Lottery funding which, after all, is essentially not very different from taking sponsorship from Ladbrokes.
We welcome a distinctive voice to The Stage this week. A former arts editor of the Observer and critic for Variety, David is an authoritative voice on musical theatre and is currently writing Stephen Sondheim’s biography. He also has experience working in the theatre sector, having served as artistic director of theatre company Gay Sweatshop. He will complement existing expert voices writing for us regularly such as our associate editor Lyn Gardner.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith