Trade Unionists and climate activists unite against privatisation of public cultural services The Shell devil being cast out of the Rembrandt show. Photo by Ewa Jasiewicz By Ewa Jasiewicz The National Gallery has woken up to a new and potent alliance a …

Walton Pantland Europe, UK, PCS, Culture

Trade Unionists and climate activists unite against privatisation of public cultural services

The Shell devil being cast out of the Rembrandt show. Photo by Ewa Jasiewicz

The Shell devil being cast out of the Rembrandt show. Photo by Ewa Jasiewicz

By Ewa Jasiewicz

The National Gallery has woken up to a new and potent alliance as climate activists team up with trade unionists in defence of public services.

On the eve of the nationwide Public and Commerical Services Union’s strike this week, a curious group of red-clad thespians descended on the National Gallery and broke into song about oil and workers’ rights. Art-lovers, security and journalists attending the launch of the Rembrandt exhibition – the target of the performing protesters – stopped and stared. The group were 10 activists from BP or not BP? and Shell Out Sounds, two campaigns opposing oil sponsorship of the arts. The target of the protest was Shell, chief sponsor of the Rembrandt exhibition, as well as National Gallery bosses, not just for taking the dirty oil dollar, but also for planing to privatise two thirds of all jobs, increasing Zero Hour contracts and introducing more unstable working. BP or Not BP?’s performance finished with the singers symbolically casting an oily ‘Shell-devil’ from the building and ripping up the privatisation plans.

BP or Not BP? have largely focused on BP’s sponsorship of the arts in the UK, questioning the role of public institutions and public cultural services in whitewashing the reputations of oil companies deeply implicated in human and environmental abuses. From alleged poisoning of indigenous communities impacted by the Tar Sands in Canada (Shell) or habitat destruction and health risks in the Niger Delta (Shell), drilling in the Arctic (Shell) and killing workers -11 in the Deepwater Horizon blow-up – and polluting seas with 4.9 million barrels of oil pumped into the Gulf of Mexico (BP), and last but not least, massive carbon contributions to climate change and aggressive lobbying against environmental legislation and clean energy solutions (both Shell and BP).

Protesting oil sponsorship of the arts at the National Gallery. Photo by Ewa Jasiewicz

Protesting oil sponsorship of the arts at the National Gallery. Photo by Ewa Jasiewicz

BP or Not BP? took on BP’s sponsorship deal with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012 and succeeded in getting BP’s relationship with the RSC downgraded. The guerilla performers invaded hushed stages no less than six times, reciting climate conscious sonnets, often to the confusion of audiences who’d mistake their performances as part of the plays. The RSC have not had BP sponsor any plays since 2012 but have entered into a £5-for-youths-ticket scheme sponsored by the company.

Earlier this summer, the BP-sponsored Vikings exhibition at the British Museum was invaded by a hoarde of hundreds, wielding cardboard swords in a longboat and reciting anti-oil sponsorship shanties. The Tate, also sponsored by BP, saw paintings come to life, including John Singer Sargent’s Lady Macbeth, emerge in front of three ‘oily’ executives trying to strike a ‘dastardly’ sponsorship deal.

BP or not BP? is part of a wider community of art activists under the banner of Art Not Oil, which have undertaken audacious acts such as a mass sleep-in and wake-up in the main turbine hall of the Tate Modern (Rising Tide), the ‘gifting’ of a 50ft 1.5 tonne wind turbine blade into the same hall (‘Liberate Tate’), an anti-Tar sands ‘orgy’ at an Energy Summit (UK Tar Sands Network) and guerilla choir performances inside and outside the South Bank Centre against Shell’s sponsorship of the institution (Shell Out Sounds). Campaigners celebrated this year as the South Bank dropped Shell, soon followed by a victory for Greenpeace as Lego ended their partnership with the oil giant. Both wins were put down to mass public pressure campaigns.

BP or Not BP?’s support for striking PCS workers is a new move and one that corporate interests may well be alarmed at. The activists involved in the group have a long and colourful history of radical direct action, including shutting down power stations, fracking sites and oil refineries in the UK – a kind of peoples’ strike from the outside against corporate control. They’re also adept at using performance, social media, and film, to intervene in debates and dynamics around public interest, private profit and what we define as ‘the commons’; from our common climate, threatened by relentless fossil fuel extraction, to our public spaces and services, under threat from austerity politics and neo-liberal economics.

This new activist-trade unionist solidarity was catalysed when people from both camps met at the Reclaim the Power action camp in Blackpool this year. Between vegan dinners and protests against fracking company Cuadrilla, craft ales and workshops on 1 million climate jobs and how to mount creative protest against oil sponsorship of the arts, a beautiful friendship was born.

Unions constantly fear being sued and having their funds sequestered. Direct action groups with no ‘legal status’ and mutable names and identities don’t have this problem. Where red tape may tie up unions, activist groups are independent and don’t have to wait for a ballot or a picketline. The combination of internal organisation and external pressure, solidarity and audacity, can be a winning one.

Clara Paillard, President of the PCS Culture Sector said: “Privatisation and sponsorship by oil companies are two sides of the same coin: it is about the ongoing sell-off of public services, including museums and galleries. It is about exploiting workers for corporate profit. PCS believes austerity is not the only show in town and that proper public investment in arts and culture is in fact beneficial to the economy.”

Rhiannon Kelly from BP or not BP? said: “Arts institutions like the National Gallery receive just a small percentage of their funding from corporate sponsors like Shell, but these corporations receive a large amount of branding and kudos in return. We know the National Gallery can make ethical funding decisions if it chooses to – it dropped the arms company Finmeccanica in 2012 following public protests. Shell may need the arts to prop up its tarnished brand, but the arts do not need Shell.”

Big privateers of all shades – watch this space.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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