Resources Provocation paper

Honesty is the only acceptable policy

Clore 15 Fellow Suzie Cross treads the waters of the ethical funding debate. 

I enter into this piece with great trepidation and I am conflicted as I pore over the subject. Treading the waters of the ethical funding debate is like wading through treacle littered with hidden landmines, only these landmines are formed of partially informed and incensed opinions, debased PR and greenwashing campaigns, and tarnished with misinformation. 

Let’s face it, everyone wants to do good, do the right thing and come out gleaming.  But sometimes the companies we work for or who fund us do not align with our own core values. How do we navigate this complex funding carousel? 

We are living in strange times. We have the greatest access to information in history and yet is somehow seems even harder to verify any detail, fact check and find the truth.  How do we know what is real and what is bias, propaganda and fake news? And how do we shield ourselves from potential backlash?

Where does the greenwashing meet the veiled PR campaigns? The glossy exteriors and touch varnish that obscures the practice of these organisations.  Is it possible to breed a culture of honesty as the only policy?

Consider this a dance around the hot topic of ethical funding, laced with my own opinion, interspersed with some recent cases and forming a whirlwind of teasers and half start conversations. Ultimately, asking far more questions to stimulate and spawn ideas in the consciousness of the reader than in attempting to answer any. 

Contextual Controversies

Set against the backdrop of 2019 is a myriad of complex ethical funding debates, controversies and outrage.  Most of the cultural sector are aware of the current situation when it comes to environmental disasters such as Deepwater Horizon at the hands of BP or the pharmaceutical controversy surrounding Purdue Pharma and owner, the Sackler family.  As the world is still living amidst the environmental fallout and recovery from the opioid crisis the question of big corporations deemed too unethical to be palatable as funders of the cultural sector is not a new conversation, it has been a topic of debate for decades.  But 2019 has seen an uptick of significant cases and an unprecedented response from the sector.

For Years The National Gallery have been under pressure to refuse funding from BP for its BP Portrait Prize, most recently awarded in June 2019.  There is even a ‘BP or Not BP’ website independently campaigning against the company and frequent protests at galleries and other locations by artists and activists. In a recent open letter to the National Gallery, more than 75 prominent artists signed a collective statement that included demands that the gallery seek other funding and not renew a deal with BP when the current contract ends in 2022.  It remains to be seen how the gallery will handle this funding dilemma over the coming months and years.  It should also be noted that Tate severed their funding relationship with BP in 2016.

Artists, such as Nan Goldin call for the unnaming of the Sackler galleries, including a protest at the Louvre, Paris in July 2019 which resulted in the name and all mentions throughout the gallery being removed.  Nan’s protests have been ongoing since 2017, and are only part of the public pressures faced by the cultural sector in response to the opioid crisis. The Sackler family have historically funded a range of cultural institutes, including the Tate and the National Gallery, both of whom declared in March 2019 that they would no longer accept funding from the family. 

However, regardless of the Sackler situation, there are members of the family who bear no role nor relevance in the controversy, except in name alone.  Are we unwilling to accept money from extended family members?  Should we chase the money throughout the entire family tree?

Take the instance of the Serpentine Gallery’s Director, Yana Peel, also a well known philanthropist, who resigned from the Serpentine in July 2019.  The magnified scrutiny which arises from the current funding controversies directed attention at Yana Peel, who has circa 25% beneficial ownership of another company, associated with the buy-out of a Cyberweapons company.  Despite her lack of involvement in decision making or investment, the shade cast upon Yana and the pressure she faced resulted in her resignation from the Serpentine and a loss to the cultural sector.  

So what then of high net worth individuals? Particularly the young millennials who are born into wealth, many of whom are environmentalists, influencers and the artists and scientists of the future.  Some of these young people have even made their own wealth through the success of  their companies and innovations. And perhaps others are not young at all, but instead have inherited or otherwise acquired money through family or philanthropy.  Is their money not worth the same value and deserving of the same gratitude as that of those we align with, simply because of their name or where the money originated, rather than the values that they may personally hold?  Is our moral high-ground really so righteous that we would prevent another from atoning their familial sins by using their money in the cultural sector for good?  Who are we to make those decisions?

How far back are we willing to trace the origins of funding to the extent that we can be wholly sure it aligns with our current perspective on ethics? How many generations holds relevance now? How much energy and resources can we really invest in this research process when much of the arts sector is already stretched and under-resourced?

Complex Composite

What do we really know about where any of the money comes from? And how much control do we actually have anyway? 

In the likes of the aforementioned, it is large sums of money from sometimes extremely well known donors, but what if the picture is a bit more of a complex composite?  How diluted does the money need to be before we deem it acceptable?  And what if we simply don’t know where it comes from?

We know that the Arts Council receives funding from both the Government and National Lottery funding amongst its portfolio.  We have absolutely no control over who may buy the lottery tickets or pays gift-in-aid contributing to that greater pot. As easy as it is to understand that criminals and other unscrupulous individuals with whom we cannot align will undoubtedly be among those purchasing, we must also recognise that good, honest people do as well. Perhaps also some of those good people are employed by companies who we would not be comfortable considering as ‘funders’! This is beyond our control and perhaps even beyond the extent to which we should follow the money, after the consideration of appropriate due diligence in measure commensurate with our own personal and professional values.

Arts Council are keen for the sector to diversify and find other income streams.  One such stream is crowd-sourced funding, fast becoming an ever more prominent source of income.  These types of sites give virtual anonymity to those who choose it when donating.  It is common opinion that it is prudent to reject large anonymous donations, with a strong emphasis on the presumption that it must be money laundering.  Yet, there are genuine anonymous donations from companies whose sole purpose it is to donate the wealth of high net individuals and these are often donations entirely philanthropically and frequently anonymous.  Not least the individuals themselves who want to simply donate without anyone knowing it was them. 

Universities are known for accepting large sums of money from private donors.  Often those higher up in organisations are fully aware of where the money comes from but it is not necessarily the case that the lower end academic beneficiary of such funding is privy to that information. In some instances, roles or commissions are openly advertised as anonymous donations and it is up to the individual to decide if they should apply or not.  This becomes the decisions of the applicant, based on the perceived risk they are willing to accept when it comes to who may have fronted the money and what level of negotiation may subsequently be possible.

The Business Improvement Districts operate with money derived from the profit of the companies based in the BID area which is sometimes mandated and collected via the council. This money is channelled largely into culture directly or indirectly and many BIDs commission artwork and fund organisations working with communities.  The money collected via BIDs is completely beyond the control of the recipient.  If it is to follow that rejection of the money occurs simply because a certain company is represented, then it is to deny the other incumbent companies the opportunity to do good and who really carries the burden in the end?

What then of other streams of funding?  The agents who brokers for private clients buying work, anonymously.  The auction houses selling work to phone-bidders and other unnamed individuals. The hoteliers who decorate their halls with work.  The advertising agencies who use stock images or operate on behalf of other clients. How can we be sure that the companies we accept funding from have a supply chain and partners as ethical as we think they should be?

There are so many questions surrounding the debate that it is impossible to understand the context, particularly when the current landscape is continually shifting.  Each individual situation is so radically different from the next, there is no clear edge where the money becomes clean, nor an understanding of the level of dilution across multiple sources which washes it enough for it to be deemed acceptable. 

We must acknowledge that we simply cannot control all aspects of the money flow.  Does bad money not already permeate every aspect of the cultural sector and of wider society?  Who built the roads and buildings that we occupy and use to exhibit?  Produces the fuel for our vehicles? What companies were involved in the creation of the materials we use?  

And what does tomorrow’s unethical behaviour or the next environmental disaster look like?  Who is next in line to become the latest unethical funder which we must all now disavow?  And what should we do if a funder or partner later turns out to be unethical, controversial, perhaps even many years from now impacting not only our work, but our means of existence?  How can we ensure we are not the next headline in the cultural sector, being told we must denounce our major funders who have so stoutly supported us throughout the years, or worse still bankrupt due to loss of essential core funding?

Some donors are not as easy to pass judgement on as those from the oil sector.  One approach might be to erase our preconceptions and write our own criteria.

As ethical funding policies and strategies start to become more widely available, as they are produced by quick measure in response to the escalating ethical funding debate, we are armed with more understanding about the decisions that others take which directly impact our core values. This presents an opportunity as we can start to align ourselves with the ethics of the organisations with whom we choose to work. And perhaps it opens the conversations about the practicalities and possibilities of ringfencing certain monies within such organisations. 

And we need to be ready with not only these policies and strategies, but also with a clear line of crisis communications. It is sad that many organisations are geared up from the outset, ready with ABC strategies and messages to communicate at a moment’s notice should there be a scenario where tensions may flare up.  A necessary part of the developmental creative process and risk assessment for not only the artistic content, but also of how we consider and value the funding which made it possible.  What we might say if something changes our perspective on how valuable that might be. Crucial that we do so to ensure we are prepared with the declarations of our position if challenged by external forces.

Business Bias

At a time when we are faced with political difficulties, financial pressures and huge environmental challenges, how can we ensure that there is a fully funded arts sector?

We need to nurture our relationships with businesses.  We can choose to consider who we align with as our representative brands and seek out those new relationships.  Actively matching funders to our work.  We should demonstrate that the arts are a good and valuable area to invest at a time when businesses are watching the ongoing controversies and evaluating how risky it may be to put their money into art and culture.

As we consider due diligence, how do we verify the information available to us? Can we believe what the corporations even say about their practices? Are they really green and operating from a position of environmentally sustainable? Let’s foster a culture that embodies our core values and tell the truth no matter what that is. Even when we have made mistakes, done something wrong or find out later that a supplier no longer represents the value we hold dear or meets our ethical standards.  Let us say so and be open about our decisions and thought processes.

What is really needed is a widespread realisation that in a post-cool society, we are no longer seduced nor governed by glossy PR, veiled CSR statements and greenwashing. And those mechanisms do not serve us or the planet and certainly do not provide any long term marketing sense. We have the ability to research, fact check and look beyond, but we should do so with both caution and optimism.

Let us also define what is acceptable and call out the things that aren’t – sunlight is the best disinfectant – but let’s do so in a way that supports discussion, learning and education rather than perpetuates a narrative of outrage and cancel culture.  Let’s promote pause, time for reflection and considered response, accepting that no one way is perfect and that we can grow better together.

Instead of outrage, let us redirect this energy into innovation, education and artworks which actively affects behaviour and promotes environmental awareness that can lead to real change. 

Personal Parameters

What metric should we use to measure how we feel about the money?  What do our personal parameters look like?  How do we maintain integrity, honesty and control? And how influenced are we by the opinions of others? How far back or sideways removed are we willing to extend our ethical funding boundaries?  What is relevant to us now?

Perhaps we can think about things a little differently. Make a move to accept all money (within reason) by addressing the terms in which we are prepared to accept it.  Let us think about creative contracts, preservation of artistic licences, and retention of autonomy.  Let us strip any hard advertising or branding campaign away from the work itself and keep the money free from agenda. 

Let us write and define our own strategies, policies and guidelines that complement who we are, that reflects our personal and professional values and beliefs not just inherently, but also in direct relationship with each piece of work we produce and who we are working with.  If we will or will not accept the money then let’s say so. And if we do, then let’s make our logic and reasoning transparent.

Let’s set a new rhetoric of honesty as the only acceptable policy.  The default should be truth, implicitly.  And drill down into the understanding of what that actually means. This way we can really embrace authenticity and set the world toward a path of trust and transparency with our funders, suppliers, organisations, partners – operating from a place of strength, implicit honesty and striving for mutual positive goals. It’s important that we consider the work, what is the message? What is the potential value from successful delivery?

Let us support each other across the sector and understand that each one of us arrives at our view-point based on our lived experiences and that each of us will have different perspectives and that is okay. 

Could it be possible to actively pursue controversial funding as a means to actively address these topics? I want soft drinks companies to fund projects that raise awareness of marine plastic as well as innovation in recycling; BP to fund education about oil spill damage and restoration as well as cleaning up; the Sacklers to pay for palliative care programmes as well as culture for all where future audiences might see political work about the pharmaceutical industry; and this does not atone their sins nor absolves them of responsibility, it allows them to stand up, say sorry and educate the world.

I don’t know where my line is, how wobbly or graduated it might be as we move forward into the unknown. I believe it will flex depending on who I am working with, what I’m working on and what else happens that will drive the narrative over the coming months and years.

What I do know is that I am on the side of sustainability, education, positive cultural experiences and the betterment of society. I value trust, honesty, transparency, integrity, understanding and collaboration.  I’m driven by kindness and compassion for each other, the planet and everything on it. I’m motivated by finding creative ways of empowering individual agency to engender positive change. 

I know that I am not cut of the same cloth as corporate greed, but I will take your money.

Themes Climate Leadership Inclusive Leadership Practice Sector Insights