From declaring climate emergency to sacking off Sackler, this week, the art world showed some spine

19 July 2019

The Unilever Series 2003: Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project. Photo by Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley, courtesy of Tate Photography, copyright TATE 2019

The ethics of the art world have been under the microscope over the past few months, with several major institutions put under pressure regarding the suitability of their patrons, their employment practices and their approach to sustainability. This week, things seem to have reached breaking point.

First up, the Tate declared a “climate emergency”, pledging to switch to green electricity across all four of its UK galleries, to adopt a train-first policy for staff and reduce its carbon footprint by 10% by 2023. In a statement, the Tate’s directors said, “We have reached a defining moment in the history of our planet and the cultural sector has a unique part to play in effecting change… There are…some hard truths to face about how we operate; about the sustainability of public institutions, like our museums, and about the future of culture.”

The announcement is just the start of a “long-term commitment ambitious in scope”, which will see the gallery rethink how it moves work around the world and balances serving the public with using resources. “We will interrogate our systems, our values and our programmes, and look for ways to become more adaptive and responsible,” the statement continues. It comes just a week after the opening of an exhibition dedicated to artist Olafur Eliasson, whose work often addresses environmental issues and ethical challenges.

Over at the British Museum, one of its trustees, Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, resigned this week because of a range of issues, including the museum’s position on repatriating looted artefacts and its sponsorship from oil company BP. Soueif said that her resignation was “a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged,” the Guardian reports.

Both the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Shakespeare Company have both received criticism for receiving sponsorship from oil companies, with the actor Mark Rylance publicly resigning as an associate artist from the latter institution in the wake of the decision.

Finally, as we reported yesterday, the Louvre Museum has removed the Sackler name from its galleries, following protests led by photographer Nan Goldin. The Sackler family has come under fire for its involvement in the US opioid crisis. It owns opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, which according to a Forbes report has generated $13 billion net worth from highly addictive painkillers like OxyContin. Goldin, who spearheads P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) has long been a critic of the billionaire family’s patronage of the arts. Given the large number of UK institutions funded by the Sackler, we wait with baited breath to see whether others follow suit.

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Laura Snoad

Laura is a London-based arts journalist who has been working for It’s Nice That on a freelance basis since 2016.

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