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Oil, art and the perils of patronage

Art patrons have always been on the wrong side of history

Artillery Row

Unless you’re a rapper, changing your name is suspect. Facebook’s rebranding as Meta is like a middle-aged divorcee taking up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — painful for everyone involved. British Petroleum tried the old switcheroo at the turn of the millennium. BP, it solemnly announced, stands for Beyond Petroleum. This claptrap was quietly dropped after the Alaska spill in 2006. That put them on the backfoot, and the Deepwater Horizon explosion of 2010 knocked them flat. You know you’ve screwed up when Mark Walberg makes a film about you. BP remains the Gordon Brown of oil companies — always hitting the wrong note, never at ease, perpetually impaling itself on custard pies. Unlike Comrade Brown, however, BP can justly charge Britain with ingratitude.

Put keeping the lights on to one side for a moment. In 2018, BP might well have stood for “Britain’s Patron” — it was sponsoring four of the country’s cultural pillars. Some £7.5 million over five years was doled out to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum. This patronage gradually became that most dreaded thing: problematic. The recipients of BP’s largesse writhed in agony, torn between avarice and pride. No prizes for guessing which one was first to tell BP, thanks, but your service will no longer be necessary. Yes, it was the one with all the actors. Once a patron just had to pick up the bill. Today’s patron must be on the right side of history.

At the fag break during life drawing class, I once mentioned that my dream patron would be a dictator — some tinpot megalomaniac with artistic aspirations and a bottomless treasure chest. His Excellency would commission me to line the boulevards of his freshly-renamed capital with gilded statues: winged victories by the score and a dozen heroic chaps on horses. I wasn’t fussy about my generalissimo’s politics just so long as he was solidly ensconced, with all his enemies shot or safely locked in the gulag. God forbid I should get halfway through casting my colossal Soldier of The People and hear that some disgruntled mob had stormed my client’s palace and strung him up by the ankles. 

The horrified silence that followed told me that the mercenary instincts I’d revealed were unspeakably vulgar. I laughed it off as a joke and slunk back to my easel, chastened and wondering when artists had become so pious. 

Leonardo Da Vinci had no compunction selling his sword

It wasn’t always so. Leonardo Da Vinci, for instance, had no compunction selling his sword. In 1492, he sent the thug running Milan a letter that reads like a Lockheed Martin sales brochure: “I have certain types of cannons,” he tells Ludovico Il Moro Sforza, “extremely easy to carry, which fire out small stones, almost as if it were a hailstorm, and the smoke from these will cause great terror to the enemy, and they will bring great loss … ” The sins of the Sforza are forgotten today, but Cesare Borgia, murderous son of a wicked pope, remains notorious. Da Vinci worked for him too, travelling with his army, making maps and devising weapons as fiendish as they were impractical. Borgia called him, “our most excellent and dearly beloved architect and general engineer”. Alas, warlords tend to die unexpectedly. It wasn’t until Da Vinci met the King of France that he knuckled down to do some work.

What then makes a great patron? Bags of cash, obviously, but what else? The best patrons — the ones you can count on to cough up the green year after year — have guilty consciences. Or, at least, an image they need to burnish with good works. The Medici, greatest patrons of all, were bankers to Europe’s kings and popes, but the Bible condemns usury (lending with interest) so a whiff of sulphur hung about the Florentine dynasty. To dispel it, they built churches and commissioned the likes of Donatello and Michelangelo to decorate them. You could say that the Renaissance was bought on credit. 

Credit still makes the world spin but, thanks to oil, it spins faster. Oil is today what banking was to the average 15th century peasant: a mysterious and slightly diabolical force, capable of bringing riches and ruin to individuals and nations alike. The greatest fortunes were won by Arabs. These Sons of the Desert, having sated themselves on Italian sports cars, French fine wines and London real estate, have moved on to the next item on the nouveau riche shopping list: art.

They ain’t playing. In 2018, The Louvre licensed its name to the Abu Dhabi museum built to hold the Salvator Mundi, a Da Vinci bought at Christies for £342.1 million. Da Vinci will probably feel at home in the UAE — if he ever shows up. It seems that the painting is, well, missing. Reportedly, the portrait of Christ was last spotted on the yacht of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. MBS, a ruler whose Machiavellian methods the Borgias would have appreciated, appears to have used a stand-in-bidder at the auction. It’s a tangled tale, and the twist — that the painting’s attribution is fairly recent and fairly dubious — recalls the Arab proverb about barefoot shoemakers.

So much for lucky nations. One of the people enriched by oil was Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, the British-Armenian broker known as “Mr Five Per Cent”. If the story of the 20th century is the story of oil, Gulbenkian is its anonymous stage manager. He was a hands-off kind of guy, asking “What’s that?” the first time he saw an oil tanker. Even so, Gulbenkian cut the deals that opened the Middle East’s virgin oil fields. He was connected — the type of chap who could collaborate with the Vichy government then after the war be offered the Order of the British Empire. Retiring to Salazar’s Portugal, he occupied his dotage buying art. “Never in modern history,” gushes a 1950 Life magazine profile, “has one man owned so much.” 

All this loot can be admired today in Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Museum. What drew me to visit in the winter of 2019 was a show called Sculpture in Paris in the Age of Rodin. It was a revelatory exhibition in a fine museum. In life Gulbenkian enriched himself; in death he enriched posterity. Once that was enough. Today? Not so much. Gulbenkian, who had a hand in everything, had a hand in creating BP. The way its sponsorship is being spurned in Britain bodes ill for his legacy and private patronage generally.

It began, as most daft things do in Britain, with Mark Rylance. He resigned from the RSC in 2019, declaring, “I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesman or anyone who wilfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn. Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.” This prompted fellow thesp Simon Callow to point out in The Times that Shakespeare was a litigious sycophant with all the social responsibility of a pirate. But the damage was done. The attention-seeking low-cost gesture is a siren song few contemporary artists can resist. Jess Worth of Culture Unstained sounded almost sorrowful when she observed that the protests were now “so squarely in the limelight that it’s upstaging the art”. Her lobbying group was one of many, banging the drum alongside BP or Not BP and the Art Not Oil coalition. 

Their next target was the National Portrait Gallery’s annual BP Portrait Award. You may know how this story ends, so perhaps it’s worth pausing at the chopping block to see what Britain stands to lose when virtue signalling goes viral. Sponsored since 1989 by BP, this was the most prestigious competition of its kind in the world. Since portraits have to, you know, look like someone, it was an annual celebration of figurative art, and a standing refutation of the conceptual art that makes the Turner Prize so crushingly dull. You could call regular BP contributors like Phil Hale, Paul Emsley and Diarmuid Kelley middlebrow but a better description would be raw unpretentious talent. 

Half-naked protestors writhed on the floor covered in fake oil

With judges like YBA star Jenny Saville, this cheerfully populist competition constantly surprised. In 2012, Aleah Chapin from Brooklyn won with a nude portrait of an aggressively middle-aged lady. Auntie has pendulous breasts, a flabby tummy and a delightfully merry expression. Besides the award money, winners won a big commission. Stuart Pearson Wright’s 2005 painting of J. K. Rowling, stuck in a claustrophobic room with a plug-in radiator as she dreams up Hogwarts, is intense, insightful and just a little bit mad. I should mention that Irish painters were well represented: Colin Davidson, who won the 2012 visitors’ award, went on to paint Ed Sheeran, Angela Merkle and the late Queen. All human life was here — girls and geezers, bankers and beggars, bodies fit, fat and skinny, in more colours than a Pride flag. There was death too. Over three days Daphne Todd painted her century-old mother’s corpse. Portrait or still life, her mesmerising painting won in 2010.

This then was the annual celebration of humanity’s infinite variety that Extinction Rebellion chose to disrupt in October 2019, its half-naked members writhing on the floor covered in fake oil. The grandees of British art, naturally, supported these yahoos. Sir Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and several Turner prize winners insisted that only by cutting ties with BP could the NPG remain “on the right side of history”. On Radio 4, Sir Antony explained that “Art is about giving a platform for sustainable futures” — a definition I had never heard before.

In 2020 the National Gallery’s Director Nicholas Cullinan announced that BP was off the judging panel. When this failed to placate anyone, Cullinan went ostrich, claiming that the competition was not being staged in 2021 and 2022 due to renovations. The pressure mounted until, in early 2022, he capitulated. The next day, Scottish Ballet followed suit. 

Was Culture Unstained satisfied? Not remotely. “The pressure is now on the British Museum,” Jess Worth said, “which is currently deciding whether to renew its own BP sponsorship deal, to get on … ” (yes, you guessed it) “ … the right side of history”.

Make no mistake, the directors and boards of these institutions are damned either way. If they have the guts to hold the line, the enemy is already within the gates, with many members and trustees agreeing with Mark Rylance that BP is indeed just like an arms dealer or a tobacco salesman. Whether the portrait prize finds a new sponsor is an open question. The BBC asked Gary Hume, one of BP’s fiercest critics, if he would be willing to sacrifice the prize. The answer of course was yes, but, not to worry, “I don’t think it will come to that.” 

Before long, surely, the British Museum and Royal Opera House will surrender, too, but one thing is certain. The activists won’t stop there. A few months after the BP Portrait Award was scrapped, two Just Stop Oil members invaded the National Gallery to pelt Van Gogh with soup. 

They did it because there is no Planet B. Yet Planet A gets over 80 per cent of its energy from fossil fuels. By 2030, when Scottish Ballet vows to be Carbon Neutral (who knew dancers produced such emissions?), the world’s population should hit 8.6 billion. By then, according to JP Morgan’s 2022 energy forecast, “energy demand growth will exceed supply growth by circa 20 per cent based on current trends, primarily driven by emerging economies … ” 

In other words BP, and all the Supermajors for that matter, will be in business for decades to come. The fate of the planet meanwhile doesn’t hinge on whether they bankroll some scholarships and buy the plonk on opening night. Let’s face it — our civilisation floats on oil and all the best patrons are on the wrong side of history. 

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