In today’s Finshots, we tell you if the world’s art museums can survive without sponsorship from fossil fuel giants.

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The Story

The Mona Lisa isn’t safe. She had soup thrown at her last week!

And this isn’t the first time she’s been attacked. Since 1956 she has been doused with acid, hit with a coffee mug, had cake smeared on her face and more before finally being splattered with soup this year.

Luckily, the folks at the Louvre Museum in Paris put her safely behind bulletproof glass after the first such incident. And that’s why she can continue to smile at us even today.

But it’s not just the Mona Lisa. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was smeared with soup a couple of years ago too.

And there’s a common link in the recent soupy attacks — climate activists!

Now they’re not trying to destroy the paintings. They seem to be choosing the ones behind the protective glass. They’re just doing this to make a point and ask,

“What is worth more? Art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?

The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup!”


Let us explain.

See, 45% of anthropogenic or human-influenced greenhouse gas emissions come from the oil and gas industry. So, you could call them the biggest contributors to climate change.

And climate change affects crop output. The yields may dwindle, and it will result in a rise in food prices.

Also, more erratic weather means that we use more electricity to cool or heat our homes. And most electricity in the world is still powered by fossil fuels such as coal. The increased demand for electricity could push up coal prices too.

Unfortunately, families get caught in this inflation spiral.

And the thing is many art organisations worldwide have a long-standing history of taking monies from companies in the oil and gas industry — such as Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil. They get donations to run exhibitions.

In return, these fossil fuel companies get to stamp their logos everywhere in the art world. It helps them dress up their public image. They can claim that they care about preserving cultural heritage even though they’re responsible for aggravating a climate crisis.

For instance, here’s what Shell said about sponsoring a music and arts festival:

Shell continues to invest billions of dollars into safely running and growing our operations [in New Orleans]. “We can do this because people know us and trust us — Jazz Fest is a big part of how we earn that trust.

Meanwhile, Shell continues to damage the Niger Delta in Africa with its oil spills. It has destroyed the water bodies and hurt the livelihoods of communities.

And even though the company initially said it would reduce oil production by 1-2% every year till 2030, it has now backtracked and said it will keep production levels the same.

So, you can see why activists are all riled up about Big Oil’s unholy relationship with the Arts, no?

The question is – can’t art organisations survive without money from big oil corporations?

Well, oil money seems to be helping.

For instance, there’s the Getty Museum in Los Angeles which boasts a massive collection of ancient Greek sculptures, thousand-year-old manuscripts and Van Gogh’s popular Irises painting too.

In 2017, a piece of burning coal sparked a fire in the area around the museum. It burnt down entire structures in the neighbourhood but the Getty Museum remained unharmed. And that’s because of its expensive protective systems. It’s built with fire-resistant stones, has a massive underground water tank and an apparatus to prevent smoke from destroying paintings.

It’s one of the safest places to keep art in the world.

And all that has been possible, thanks to the oil money from the Getty Trust which was formed after the death of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.

But you could also argue that this is a unique case.

Because most estimates suggest that oil companies might only account for 1-2% of a museum’s annual income. That’s what numbers from Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Museum all seem to suggest. They do get money from the government, other corporations, big individual donors and art enthusiasts too.

And maybe many museums have realised this and they don’t want to draw the ire of activists. But slowly, they’re cutting ties with these environmental polluters. It definitely seems to be the beginning of the end of ‘artwashing’ by Big Oil.

The only thing is severing these direct ties might not be enough to appease people.

When the National Portrait Gallery replaced BP, it roped in a law firm called Herbert Smith Freehills as a patron.

The irony?

The firm's clients included BP too!

So yeah, it looks like art museums will end up getting indirectly sponsored by oil money whether climate activists like it or not. And even that could land them in a soup.

Until then…

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