Oil, Museums, & Arts Funding

On June 23, 2010, I wrote a missive regarding the financial ties the Los Angeles County Museum of Art maintains with the U.K. oil company, BP (British Petroleum). My tongue-in-cheek piece sarcastically incriminated Freewaves, the L.A.-based new media arts organization, for displaying videos at LACMA’s so-called “BP Grand Entrance” in an official LACMA program on June 26, 2010. My remarks apparently touched a nerve, and I received an e-mail from the Executive Director of Freewaves, Anne Bray, who claimed Freewaves was “sympathetic” to my position. Intrigued, I offered Ms. Bray the opportunity to submit a written rebuttal to my article, and that I would consider publishing her commentary for the sake of open dialog in the arts community. Ms. Bray indeed sent an editorial piece to me on 6/25/2010 that was co-authored by Freewaves Marketing Intern Saira Fazli. I publish their statement here in full:

Dear Mr. Vallen

We are grateful for your concern regarding our event. We agree with you – BP has done a terrible thing that reflects this society’s harrowing addiction to oil, which is the real issue. The most constructive thing we can do is to decrease our dependence on oil, not just hate BP. BP only exists to supply our thirst. Another constructive thing we can do, which Freewaves does, is to embrace activist art. We screen videos that are deemed too challenging for mainstream media. We are aware of the fact that our medium, video art, is not a green one. But we have been showing eco-friendly and eco-themed works since 1990.

We are anything but an institution or a corporation. We are a community. In fact, we have only two permanent employees. Everyone else who has worked with us has been a friend of Freewaves who decided to work with us because they believe in us. Everything we’ve done in our 20+ year history has been an attempt to subvert the way that corporations have framed mass media. We have consistently worked tirelessly to fairly and justly give underrepresented groups the attention they can’t get anywhere else. We haven’t stopped yet, and we’re not going to stop now.

The $10 per person ticket price is not excess money that we greedily collect because we sadistically celebrate seagull fatalities. LACMA is receiving all of the income from the event. Most Freewaves events are actually free. In fact, unlike other festivals, we choose to use the funding that we have to pay our artists. We care about making sure that artists understand how much we value their creativity.

We sell our books and DVDs at a small portion of production costs. We are, at our core, a small nonprofit arts organization. We are not about, and have  never been about, money.

We don’t need to waste our time giving BP extra publicity. But if you want to be constructive and help us make a dent in the world, then join us. Contribute your ideas and help us make a change. Come to our event and protest BP if you have to. Talk to everyone you meet about how much the situation disgusts you. Mobilize! The most unhelpful thing you can do is stay home by yourself and write blogs about why we suck.

We’re not going to stop fighting. Are you?

Sincerely,

Anne Bray, Executive Director
Saira Fazli, Marketing Intern

I am afraid that Bray and Fazli have missed my point entirely. My objection is not that BP has “done a terrible thing,” but that LACMA’s director Michael Govan has turned the museum into a marketing arm of BP. In 2007 Mr. Govan accepted $25 million from the oil company and in return the museum built the so-called “BP Grand Entrance” on the LACMA campus. Every time an artist or arts group presents works beneath the BP Grand Entrance, it lends authority, respectability, and quiet approval to the machinations of one of the world’s biggest polluters; even if that presentation is of a “challenging” nature – it nonetheless enables BP to present itself as a generous and “socially responsible” supporter of the arts. As one must pass through the BP Grand Entrance in order to enter the LACMA museum complex, BP has succeeded in placing its imprimatur upon every LACMA exhibit, not to mention its entire collection.

In a brief interview that appeared on the Flavorpill website just prior to Freewaves’ presentation at the BP Grand Entrance, Ms. Bray asserted that the videos to be shown would “assess art’s role in challenging racism, sexism and classism.” In the statement Bray and Fazli submitted to me, they insisted that in the 20 plus years of Freewaves’ history, the group has endeavored to “subvert the way that corporations have framed mass media.” I do commend Freewaves for having such an illustrious track record, but one thing puzzles me. How is it that a collection of apolitical mainstream Pop Stars comprised of mega-celebrities like Lady Gaga, the Backstreet Boys, Ryan Seacrest, Justin Bieber, Cameron Diaz and dozens of others, can call for and help organize a boycott in denunciation of BP – but Freewaves, which purports to “embrace activist art,” cannot?

There are many talented artists who have worked with Freewaves, and undoubtedly the group and its associates have contributed much in helping to build and sustain a new contentious art – but at this time there is a pressing need for all artists and arts organizations to think through their positions regarding oil company sponsorship of the arts. In the spirit of the familiar axiom, “think globally – act locally,” this means artists in L.A. should be opposing BP’s funding of LACMA. Around twenty years ago some of the largest corporate sponsors of the arts were tobacco companies, yet who would collaborate with, or take money from, tobacco companies today? If the idea of a “Philip Morris Tobacco Company Grand Entrance” at LACMA sounds like an outrage, then why is the “BP Grand Entrance” acceptable – especially in light of today’s ongoing cataclysm in the Gulf of Mexico?

I have put my name to a petition published in the letters section of Britain’s Guardian on June 28, 2010, an appeal signed by 170 other international arts professionals including Hans Haacke and Lucy R. Lippard. The petition, which demands an end to oil company sponsorship of the arts, was described by Artinfo as an “Army of Art-World Protestors Against BP Funding,” The petition was meant to coincide with the 20th anniversary of BP “support” for Britain’s Tate Modern, National Portrait Gallery, and other major cultural institutions – sponsorship that has been denounced, protested, picketed, and disrupted by a wide alliance of arts professionals, activists, and environmentalists in the U.K. It is time for the arts community in the United States to carry out its own efforts.

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