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Art Culture

Virtue or Vanity? The ‘villains’ funding big culture

An interest in the arts and similar forms of ‘prestige’ culture has consistently conferred an image of civic awareness and social empathy upon its advocates. It also suggests an inherent ‘good will’ – to care for culture is to care for the preservation of humanity’s most prized social totems. It logically follows, then, that big business and the corporate machine, traditionally viewed as anathema to the arts in their comparatively philistine approach to moneymaking, should covet a more positive public image. Arts patronage offers just that; essentially acting as a Trojan horse by which less ethically sound corporations are able to morally money launder. A little well-placed philanthropy can clean up even the dirtiest of public images. Until very recently, the phenomena of “corporate sponsorship” and “gifting” have gone largely unchallenged by both art consumers and creators, existing simply as an accepted fact of life in an industry that is consistently degraded by local government budgets. It begs the question: should we really be letting the private sector fill in the gaps?

The National Galleries of Scotland recently released their yearly financial report, and upon close inspection a sense of the clandestine can be detected in their figures. Whilst income resultant from the Grant-In-Aid scheme (public money awarded by the Scottish Arts Council on behalf of the Scottish Government – since 2010, it has consistently decreased year-on-year) is transparently detailed, information concerning donations from their listed private sponsors, in this instance, Baillie Gifford and EY, prove harder to find. This is not to say that National Galleries Scotland is wholly wrong to accept private sector funding, and in the cases of EY and Baillie Gifford, their money appears somewhat politically ‘clean,’ but rather to comment on how the open receipt of private sector money has gradually become increasingly taboo in the arts industry.

What has triggered this changing of the tide? For one answer we look to London’s National Gallery, who in February 2019 found themselves at the centre of a funding furore. Freshly gifted £1million from the now-notorious Sackler Trust, acclaimed US photographer Nan Goldin threatened to boycott the gallery should they accept it. The context here proves crucial – the Sackler family are behind Purdue Pharma, the global multi billion-pound pharmaceutical company that produces OxyContin and thus actively profits from America’s opioid crisis. The Sacklers have amassed their wealth atop the lives of approximately 400,000 Americans over the last two decades, and in the same length of time have donated over £60 million to the arts and education (beneficiaries include the Victoria and Albert Museum and even our very own University of Edinburgh). Nan Goldin’s stance speaks to a certain zeitgeist that promotes the probing of just how comfortable we are consuming displays of culture that exist, in part, thanks to ethically dubious patronage. It’s this initiative that’s given rise to the arguments championed by funding purists – who is backing our art and just how ‘bad’ is bad when it comes to what we can morally tolerate?

At risk of conflating morality with politics, ArtNet’s Tim Schneider has offered a fascinating explanation for why exactly we have chosen to sack the Sacklers now. The Overton Window is a political concept that refers to the body of ideas and policies currently in circulation that constitute today’s mainstream moral guide – essentially what is considered socially acceptable. Joseph Overton hypothesized that the ‘window’ is constantly shifting according to subtle changes in public opinion. A good example of the Overton Window in action is the evolution of public opinion regarding tobacco. In the 1960s smoking was not considered especially harmful, yet by 1986, the Tate Modern Gallery refused to accept any further donations from tobacco companies– public opinion had awoken to the idea that smoking was harmful and the Overton Window shifted accordingly to reflect this. Thus the ousting of the Sackler Trust from favour can be credited to a shifting of the Overton Window. The National Gallery indirectly benefitting from the opioid crisis is no longer publicly sanctioned. This development can be extrapolated to make a wider social point: millennials are ostensibly more concerned with what is ‘moral’ than their forbears, and patrons of the arts are being increasingly viewed through this prism. This shift allows me, then, to end on a somewhat hopeful note: perhaps it is now a question of when, not whether, corporate hijacking of the arts will cease.

Image: courtesy of lobelog.com

By Erin Withey

Erin is an Edinburgh-based History student, freelance writer and current Art Editor for The Student. She contributes to a variety of Scottish, student-led publications and is in constant pursuit of hot takes.