Laura Gascoigne: Dirty Money and Plenty of It – September 2019

Laura Gascoigne
September/October 2019

Among the many examples of the wit and wisdom of Sir Thomas Beecham is the story of the great conductor seeing a tombstone inscribed: “Here lies a great organist and an excellent musician” and remarking in surprise: “What, both in the same grave?” 

I was reminded of this when seeing Wafic Saïd, a contributor to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, described in the press as an “arms dealer and philanthropist”. What, both in the same skin? You may recall the Syrian-Saudi financier as the fixer behind the notorious 1980s Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the investigation into which by the Serious Fraud Office was quietly dropped under Tony Blair in 2006. To salve what he has in the way of a conscience, Saïd likes to make charitable donations: a bit to the Royal Shakespeare Company, a bit to the Science Museum, a massive whack to Oxford University for his eponymous business school. Last year he funnelled £340,000 to the Tory party through his British wife Rosemary; the bung for Johnson’s leadership campaign was in her name, while their son Khaled supported Rory Stewart. Hedging your bets, as it’s known in camel racing.

No complaints from the Electoral Commission: politics is a dirty business, where dirty money is the norm. Higher standards are expected of culture, I can’t think why. Wasn’t Alfred Nobel an arms manufacturer? And the Hunting Art Prize ticked along happily here for a quarter of a century despite the sponsor’s rumoured involvement with nuclear weapons and cluster bombs, before decamping to the land of the free and the Second Amendment in 2006. (Your correspondent even sat on the judging panel and received a case of wine for her services, which she didn’t choke on.) But now that cultured folk seem to have forgotten that lucre is filthy, they’re getting as jumpy about sponsorship as a passel of cats on a hot tin roof. 

One campaigning group calls itself ‘Culture Unstained’. Culture unstained, eh?  I’ve been racking my brains for a major arts sponsor, from Cosimo de’ Medici on, whose hands have not been stained with dirty dealings of one kind or another. Lucre is filthy, and art depends on it. But this rather obvious fact seems to have escaped campaigners against BP’s sponsorship deal with four of our major cultural institutions: the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Opera House. The focus of recent attacks has been the NPG’s Portrait Award, taken over by BP from John Player in 1989 when tobacco staining was considered the greater evil. (The RA, incidentally, still accepts £45,000 a year from Japan Tobacco International, which supported its 2009 exhibition of Anish Kapoor. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. The BM has also been quietly taking JTI’s yen for acquisitions for its Asia Department. It’s apparently OK to accept money from foreign tobacco companies; we don’t care if the Japanese die of cancer as long as our NHS doesn’t have to pick up the tab.)

But back to BP. So far the NPG and the BM have stuck to their guns, or pumps, though how long the RSC will hold out after Mark Rylance’s ostentatious resignation from the company is another question. In June Rylance announced that he did not wish to be associated with “anyone who wilfully destroys the lives of others… Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.” That’s quite a claim to make on behalf of someone who lived through the Elizabethan era of colonial expansion and legalised piracy, but on climate change, perhaps, the bard was blameless: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Though art more lovely and more temperate than global warming.” 

Summoning the spirits of dead artists in support of one’s cause is an interesting gambit. I doubt Van Gogh would have been overjoyed at having his recent exhibition at Tate Britain branded with the initials EY, but short of appearing like Banquo’s ghost and spooking VIP guests at the private view by parading his bandaged ear among the canapés there wasn’t a lot he could do about it. With living artists, though, it’s another matter. In November Nan Goldin twisted the NPG’s arm by refusing to go ahead with a planned exhibition unless the gallery dropped its grant from the Sackler Trust, the philanthropic arm of the owners of the drug manufacturer Purdue Pharma currently facing lawsuits in 35 US states for pushing its addictive painkiller OxyContin across America. Goldin has appointed herself the avenging angel of OxyContin addicts, fronting the campaign that drove the Met to sever its ties with the Sacklers in May. Now the repercussions are being felt over here, though it’s not our problem, and the stink of opioids is overpowering the smell of petrol. Having held the line on BP, in February the NPG’s newly formed ethics committee drew it at the Sacklers, who gracefully withdrew their grant “to avoid being a distraction” – for which read “to avoid more bad publicity”. Yes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity but no, no one in their right mind wants to pay for it. 

Word has it that the NPG were shamed into action by the plucky little South London Gallery, whose trustees under the chairmanship of Frieze founder Matthew Slotover returned £125,000 worth of Sackler funding the month before. Now the gauntlet has been thrown down to Tate Modern, V&A Dundee, MK Gallery, the Ashmolean, the RCA, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Science Museum, the Royal Museums Greenwich and all other recipients of Sackler generosity ­– the list of shame is as long as the tracks on a junkie’s arm. Woe to any institution that, like the Serpentine, has the Sackler name affixed in Roman capitals to its entablature; it cannot shed it without the family’s permission. While not wishing to be a distraction, the Sacklers may well balk at being erased from history without seeing a penny of their money back. 

It’s been a tough year for the Serpentine all round. In June its CEO Yana Peel was forced to resign over her husband’s partnership in Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm with a stake in the cyber security group NSO linked to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Peel didn’t go without a fight, complaining of “bullying and intimidation” and “toxic personal attacks” – none quite as bad as being dismembered with a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on the eve of your wedding. In her resignation statement she threatened: “If campaigns of this type continue, the treasures of the art community [the community, note, not the art] – which are so fundamental to our society – risk an erosion of private support.”

I’m not sure she’s right. While there are donors in search of redemptive publicity, support will continue. What no one mentions is how small the sums involved are. The real scandal is not that our cultural institutions are selling themselves for dirty money, but that they’re selling themselves dirt cheap. The BP sponsorship deal at the root of all the fuss is worth £7.5m, split between four institutions over five years. On the scale of ‘big oil’, this is peanuts. Before staining our culture with dirty money, let’s at least make sure there’s plenty of it.