Building brands, ruining reputations – Laura Gascoigne on the Tate

Nothing is too squalid for Brand Tate, argues Laura Gascoigne.

‘Change the name and not the letter, change for the worse and not the better,’ ran the old wives’ saw on choosing a husband. Nowadays, in the wider world of consumer choice, a change of name is almost always a change for the worse. Whenever a familiar product is rebranded, a deterioration in quality is guaranteed. And when a corporation renames itself, as sure as eggs is eggs (assuming one can still be sure of that) it’s up to no good.

Last July, there was suppressed hilarity in media circles when multinational accounting firm Ernst & Young announced that henceforth it would be trading under the snappier acronym EY. Unhappily, some in the press pointed out that the initials adopted by the company to “demonstrate boldly and clearly who we are” were confusingly already in use by another entity, the junior beefcake magazine EY! – or Electric Youth!, to give it its full name – a publication equally unafraid to demonstrate boldly and clearly what it is. A typical cover on its website features teen model Sergio Carvajal lifting his Spain 2012/13 Confederations Cup football shirt with one hand while pulling down his pants with the other, alongside the cover line: ‘The beauty and joy of young boyhood’. What’s the male equivalent of nubile? Pubile? Anyway, you get the picture.

Commentators remarked that it was odd that a firm like EY2 that employs 167,000 people hadn’t done its research before changing its name but not its letters. The reason is, it was in a hurry. The name change came just four months after the then E&Y was persuaded by US criminal prosecutors to reach a $123m settlement with the IRS for marketing tax avoidance schemes that cost the US economy $2bn in lost revenue between 1999-2004. The dodges, dreamed up by a unit called VIPER – Value Ideas Produce Extraordinary Results – included fake investments with names like COBRA – Currency Options Bring Reward Alternatives – for the creation of which four of the company’s magic bean-counters were sent down in 2010.

A spokesman for E&Y quickly announced that it was “pleased to put this matter from a decade ago behind us”, but unfortunately matters didn’t end there. When top executives from Amazon and Google were hauled before our own Commons Public Accounts Committee last November for a grilling by the terrifying Margaret Hodge as to how they got away with paying almost no taxes, the schemes allowing them to do so, it transpired, had been hatched by er… the erstwhile Ernst & Young. Before people with long memories started to cast their minds back to the collapses of Anglo-Irish Bank and Lehman Bros and to recall the identity of their auditors, a nifty change of name was obviously in order.

Where’s all this heading? In case you haven’t noticed, Tate Modern’s big autumn exhibition is being marketed under the title The EY Exhibition – Paul Klee: Making Visible. Why, oh EY? Because in July, within days of their name-change, EY signed a three-show sponsorship deal with Tate Modern, publicized in a wince-inducing press release picturing the Tate director and the EY chairman standing shoulder to shoulder with matching business suits and rictus grins, one without a tie (creative industries), one with (creative accountancy). “This collaboration between two internationally-recognised institutions,” the release announced, “has the potential to help build a better working world for their visitors and clients respectively and the communities in which they work.” Take your fingers out of your throat, because it gets worse. It ended with this assertion from the EY chairman: “The arts and services sector can make a significant contribution to building brand Britain.”

Building brand Britain? I bet Paul Klee had no idea when helping to design a brave new world at the Bauhaus that his name would be posthumously linked with such a preposterous piece of corporate jingoism, and I don’t suppose he’d have been best pleased about it. It’s obnoxious. There may be a respectable tradition of calling lecture series after distinguished scholars, but there’s nothing respectable about flogging a dead artist’s arse to a dodgy firm of accountants and allowing them to brand their initials on it. The Tate would do better to get EY! to sponsor the gents toilets and at least encourage some active philanthropy while they’re at it.

Fortunately for the survival of old familiar unbranded Britain, there are signs that a rebellion against brandalism is brewing. In September the felicitously named Russell Brand loosed a well-aimed volley at the GQ Men of the Year awards – where he was collecting an award as an ‘oracle’ – when he stood on a stage papered in the logos of the event’s sponsors Hugo Boss and pointed out the absurdity of the fact that German outfitters who supplied uniforms to the Nazis were still trading as a fashion house under the same name, “and the ludicrous necessity for an event such as this to banish such a lurid piece of information from our collective consciousness.” He may cultivate the appearance of Edmund Blackadder’s sexier younger brother, but Brand is more than just a pretty face. He earned his ‘oracle’ award, in spades.

To the innocent observer, the shocking thing about these you-scratch-my-brand-and-I’ll-scratch-yours relationships is how openly they are conducted. When accepting sponsorship money stolen from the taxpayer, you’d think a public institution would want to keep it quiet. But the Tate is so intoxicated with its own brand that it seems to have lost all sense of propriety. At the risk of turning really green at the gills, visit the Corporate Support page of the Tate’s website and watch it flogging its own arse to prospective sponsors as “one of the best-loved brands in the world… central to the UK’s cultural vibrancy, an agenda-setting arts organisation internationally [which] regularly features in industry round-ups of ‘cool’ and ‘favourite’ brands. Choose a Tate exhibition,” it coos, “and together we can build a package to mirror your brand, ethos and style”. But if Tate is really such a favourite brand, shouldn’t it be in a position to set conditions and bury EY’s involvement in the usual small print? Now that it has rolled over and given EY top billing, every corporate sponsor will expect the same treatment. If anything, their demands will escalate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Four years ago the then director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Timothy Potts, forfeited £80,000 of funding towards the acquisition of Marcantonio Bassetti’s The Dead Christ Supported by the Virgin and Mary Magdalen when he refused to display the Art Fund’s naff new pink heart logo on the label – a logo The Burlington Magazine thought more appropriate to “a mail-order firm for adult lingerie”. Potts agreed to a credit line, just not the logo. “Logos are the currency of marketing and commerce,” he said, “and this introduces a promotional element into galleries that we regard as an unnecessary and unacceptable distraction.” The museum lost the picture but kept its dignity. There were no hard feelings: the Art Fund helped the Fitzwilliam (with Potts still in post) to raise the £3.9m needed to acquire Poussin’s Extreme Unction last year.

“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul,” said Margaret Thatcher. When an art institution accepts the currency of marketing and commerce, it risks losing its heart and soul along with its dignity.

 Laura Gascoigne

The Jackdaw, 2014