Challenging Big Oil’s cultural licence to operate.

BP and Shell currently sponsor many of our most iconic cultural institutions, using sponsorship to maintain and deepen their ‘social licence to operate’. Challenging this is key to undermining big oil’s cultural and political power, and making the rapid transition away from oil-dependence more feasible.

We are a collective of groups who have been working on BP and Shell sponsorship of galleries, theatres, museums, ballet and classical music – for several years. Between us we have managed to spark debate and controversy within the sectors we have targeted, through a mixture of creative interventions in the medium that is being sponsored (e.g. performance art in the Tate, Shakespearean stage invasions at the RSC, singing in the Southbank Centre), media coverage, social networking, engagement with key figures within these sectors (such as letters to the papers on Tate, RSC and the Southbank Centre, supportive tweets from RSC actors etc), and background research to back up the case that we don’t need oil to fund the arts.

We are now getting regular national media coverage for our interventions, and the debate within the arts sector over the ethics of oil sponsorship is at its highest point so far. Now is the time for a concerted push to leverage these possibilities and get cultural organisations actively rejecting Big Oil. Our ultimate aim is to make BP and Shell’s brands as toxic as the fossil fuels they profit from, and to make oil sponsorship socially unacceptable, much as tobacco sponsorship became in the 90s. This will damage the ‘social licence to operate’ that companies like BP and Shell increasingly depend upon.

Art Not OIl - BP Protest at The TateWe see creative interventions tackling the issue of fossil fuel sponsorship within the arts as vital to tackling climate change and the human rights violations associated with Big Oil. These companies need sponsorship deals as much as they need rig operators and transport mechanisms to continue their business. We are hindering their long-term ability to continue, as well as in the shorter-term making it harder for them to push ahead with specific destructive projects like tar sands extraction and Arctic drilling.

This funding will facilitate a process of concerted collaboration between the organisations in the collective – which include Art Not Oil, Shell Out Sounds, Liberate Tate, Reclaim Shakespeare Company, Rising Tide UK, UK Tar Sands Network and artofactivism.

We hope it will result in our ability to deliver a more co-ordinated and effective programme of interventions, education/research resources, outreach materials and organisational networking and lobbying that will take the pressure on cultural institutions not to accept oil money to a new level.



This grant from APE allowed a group of different organisations with similar aims to come together and form a new coalition: Art Not Oil. The founding members were Shell Out Sounds, Liberate Tate, Reclaim Shakespeare Company, Rising Tide UK, UK Tar Sands Network and Platform. Since forming the coalition we have:


  • agreed a joint statement
  • set up a joint website
  • held a joint strategy day where all the groups came together to plan collectively for future activities
  • welcomed a new member, Science Unstained
  • began to work together behind the scenes to reach out to individuals and organisations in the arts world and work with them to encourage the adoption of ethical sponsorship policies

Individual members of the coalition were also given some of the grant to fund creative interventions in oil sponsored institutions:

Reclaim Shakespeare Company – On Sunday 19th January, a group of merry mischief-makers from the Reclaim Shakespeare Company held a surprise theatrical protest inside Tate Britain, to challenge BP’s sponsorship of the gallery, and in particular its rebranding as the ‘BP Walk Through British Art’. This involved a painting coming to life, a pop-up Shakespearean performance, and a noisy parade through the building in front of hundreds of gallery-goers, staff, and the Director of the Tate himself.

Click here to see the film of Lady Macbeth coming to life in Tate Britain. 


Shell Out Sounds – The Shell Out Sounds choir has now performed five times, to target the Southbank Centre’s ‘Shell Classic International’ series of concerts. The most dramatic took place in October 2013 where the choir stood up inside the Royal Festival Hall and performed ‘Oil in the Water’, to cheers from the audience. In December 2013 their ‘Carols Not Barrels’ event toured oil-sponsored cultural institutions around London, and finished with a mass open carol singing event inside and outside the Southbank Centre. Then in January, there was a taste of victory! The Southbank Centre suddenly announced that Shell would no longer be sponsoring the concert series due in part, no doubt, to Shell Out Sounds’ efforts and the obvious support they were gaining from concert-goers.

See this interactive timeline from Platform that details all the many activities in the year preceding this monumental decision.

Liberate Tate - Parts Per MillionLiberate Tate – Parts Per MillionLiberate Tate – Liberate Tate’s most recent performance, Parts Per Million, involved 50 veiled performers dressed in black using the chronology of the BP Walk Through British Art to trace rising levels of atmospheric carbon up to the present day, during the re-opening of the re-furbished Tate Britain. See a film of the November 2013 performance here:

In February 2014, Liberate Tate accepted an open invitation from Tate to submit GIFs for its mass participatory GIF animation collage installation at Late at Tate Britain’s 1840s GIF party. Since Tate has promised to display all the submissions it received, they submitted 16. See the results here:


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