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The ethics of oil: should we care how the arts are funded?

BP’s funding of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is a topic that has caused much comment and activity in recent months. As part of Warwick Student Union’s Term 2 Referendum, a motion was passed to pressure the RSC to drop this source of sponsorship and provide “Fossil Free” tickets. Amongst other benefits, BP’s sponsorship currently allows students to access tickets for RSC productions for only £5, a bargain considering that normally the cheapest seat costs £16. Although this case is arguably the most well known funding controversy within the arts it is by no means an isolated issue, and highlights many key questions that must be asked with regards to the ethics of how the arts are funded.

Many arts projects, such as the Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival, have terminated their connections with companies such as BP. The RSC has instead signed a further five-year contract with them. In an ideal world, all arts projects would be completely clean morally, especially as projects often have a political or ethical message. It would therefore be hypocritical for these projects to be funded via a non-ethical route, such as by fossil fuel companies that cause prolific environmental damage. In reality, however, the situation is far from simple.

Many arts projects, such as the Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival, have terminated their connections with companies such as BP

From the perspective of the arts companies, being offered funding by a company that many view as unethical puts them in a difficult situation, especially within the context of ongoing government funding cuts. In July 2017 for instance, the RSC, the National Theatre, Southbank Centre, and the Royal Opera House were informed that they would be losing £2.5 million of Arts Council England funding per year between them. Due to these governmental funding cuts, companies must look elsewhere in order to continue to run their projects financially.

As much as we might like to think that the arts should be above economic issues and that art should be created for its own sake, the fact is that all these companies and projects need money in order to continue to function. This is particularly the case for the larger companies, such as the aforementioned RSC, as they are creating the most productions and, arguably, in the best position to produce the most innovative work.

Alternative sources of funding would be ideal, and the push for Fossil Free tickets is a positive step in the right direction

According to figures published by the RSC, production costs in 2016/17 were £40.8 million. £15.4 million of this came from Arts Council England, less than a quarter of the RSC’s overall income. The majority of their income comes from the box office, and in reality very little comes from sponsorship: it is estimated that 0.5% of the RSC’s funding comes from BP. To keep their high rates of box office revenue however, they must create exciting and revolutionary productions to entertain audiences all year round, year after year. In this situation, as they see their funding from the government being cut, what can we realistically expect from companies such as the RSC? If this is the payment for creating a production in the way they envision, then is this the price that must be paid to produce innovative art?

Alternative sources of funding would be ideal, and the push for Fossil Free tickets is a positive step in the right direction. Otherwise, if this source of cheap tickets is removed without an alternative being implemented, it causes issues around the accessibility of the arts. As the RSC’s main revenue comes from the box office, if their other sources of funding are cut it stands to reason that they would have to increase ticket prices in order to make up the difference. This would ultimately cause the arts to become more elitist than they are already perceived to be. In an ideal world, these big arts companies should be pushing to get funding that is ethically untarnished, while maintaining their commitment to keeping the arts accessible. Hopefully, in the future this ideal will become a reality.

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