Can “art washing” survive in the age of social media?

Breakups are never easy, which is why we were all saddened when the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Sackler family announced last week that their long-term relationship was drawing to a close.

Or maybe we weren’t?

The Sacklers, who have donated millions of dollars to the Met over the years, are currently facing bankruptcy proceedings after their company, Purdue Pharma, pleaded guilty to criminal charges regarding their role in the opioid crisis ravaging America.

The charges – which included encouraging doctors to pay through a speakers program to increase pain medication prescriptions – force the Sacklers to pay $ 8.3 billion (€ 7.4 billion) in confiscations and fines.

To date, America’s drug overdose crisis has claimed the lives of 470,000 people.

The Met isn’t the only cultural institution scrambling to escape the Sacklers’ shattered reputation, either. During the last years the Louvre, the Tate and the Jewish Museum Berlin have all distanced themselves from the now controversial philanthropists.

While scandals often make us wonder if we can separate art from artist, should these developments make us wonder how to separate artists from their sponsors?

Dirty money and fossil fuel philanthropy

Opioid addiction and public health are by no means the only crisis overshadowing museums and galleries, as it turns out sponsors with generous pockets may have obtained their money in less than reputable means.

Recent news that the London’s Science Museum chose fossil fuel company to sponsor its climate show was greeted with dismay, culminating in the occupation of the building by young climate activists overnight.

“If you display or show the BP or Shell logo in an exhibition, you are helping to improve their brand and give them social legitimacy,” says Chris Garrand, founder of Spotless culture an organization that supported the protesters.

Rather than good-humored philanthropy, Garrand believes that donations from fossil fuel companies are a way to reorient their public image, a practice known as “artwashing.”

“These sponsorships are transactional and they buy this good reputation,” explains Garrand.

Cultural institutions are often seen as a neutral space, places that passively display art or science exhibitions, but Garrand sees them more as a discursive space, which can help change the public’s perception of polluting businesses.

“These partnerships do not take place in a vacuum; they approve of these companies, ”says Garrand.

“We have seen a shift (…) where we look to cultural institutions to show leadership on these issues. “

Can artwashing survive the age of social media?

Art washing is nothing new, as evidenced by Sackler’s sponsorship on the Met from the 1970s.

However, while reputations may have been easily whitewashed at one point, the practice does not stand up to scrutiny these days.

“Galleries are brands… and you don’t have to dig before you find contradictions,” says Paul Springer, director of the School of Communication at Falmouth University.

“Social media provides a platform for people to question and challenge the facts as presented. There is a greater questioning of the motives now.

The problem isn’t just with the audience either. In 2019, the National Portrait Gallery in London faced problems when artist Gary Hulme called for her to step back from fossil fuel funding. Springer cites how savvy artists themselves are to partner with galleries or awards that could harm their brands.

“They have always known where to show and where not to show and are more concerned with which funders they would be willing to get involved with,” he says.

In an age when such events can be ruinous for anyone connected, it makes more sense that not everyone involved is taking the risk.

“Securities currently carry more weight than cash,” says Springer.

“Some places are selective; they wouldn’t bring brands that conflicted with their ideology. “

Sponsorship scandals also come at a financial cost, with some collectors unwilling to exhibit their work at all in case the sponsorship and controversial protests become part of the larger art history and damage its value.

“The whole art movement is more careful, there is a lot more to do, there is more reluctance to send works to exhibitions where it could cause controversy.”

While the sponsorship of fossil fuels has not completely disappeared (BP is currently sponsoring the new Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum) it had significantly decreased.

In the face of a climate-conscious audience and fierce criticism from social media, we may soon see the divorce rate between museums and sponsors rise dramatically.

James C. Tibbs