Liberate Tate?

January 23 2015

Image of Liberate Tate?

Picture: Immo Klink

Regular readers will know that Liberate Tate, the anti-oil movement that seeks to stop Tate accepting money from BP, was one of AHN's least favourite campaign groups, thanks to stunts like this (and above). Happily, their more recent protests have been less silly.

Liberate Tate has been in the news again with a victory over Tate in the question of freedom of information. LT argued that Tate was wrong to refuse to reveal the actual amounts BP give to the museum, and the Freedom of Information Commissioner agreed. You can read more about the ruling here

In an article in The Art Newspaper, Tiffany Jenkins looks at why Tate might have wanted to keep the information secret:

There are good reasons why the Tate and others should not have to reveal every penny of financial arrangements: sponsorship deals are commercial. As all fundraisers know, you ask for more than you get and this requires a certain degree of smoke and mirrors. It is conceivable, for example, that the Tate does not want to reveal how much it receives because it is not quite as much as other sponsors—and future ones—think. This is what campaigners believe. Liberate Tate used available information to estimate that the Tate receives from BP about £500,000 a year—only 0.3% of Tate’s overall operating budget. They argue that this shows oil money is not as essential as is suggested. But does it? After all, every penny counts. The museum should take the money and ask for more. 

I too have no problem with Tate taking money from BP. Every nanopenny counts these days. Jenkins then sympathises with Tate's need to keep some information secret:

The broader obsession with transparency fails to recognise that withholding information can be beneficial, especially in relation to the request that the Tate publish minutes from meetings. Internal discussion, where people can speak their minds freely without fearing everyone will find out what they said, is vital to coming to informed decisions. Those with a zeal for openness need to recognise that demands to show everything can undercut essential deliberation.

In my spare time, I sit on a government advisory body which looks at freedom of information requests, and decides whether previously classified documents should be released to the public. It's interesting work, but it reinforces my belief that no government can operate without keeping some things secret. Practically, there are times, especially in military matters and foreign affairs, when one has to do things without wider public knowledge. The Assange-ist belief that we must know everything all the time is pure fantasy. And in any case, if we did insist on publishing every government, or in this case, museum, decision, financial account or minute, the reality is that people would soon stop writing things down, so we'd never know what really happened. The recent reduction in the time to keep government documents classified, from 30 years to 20 years, was in my view a mistake - already government departments and ministers are refraining from writing things down as they used to, for fear of hostile public reaction within their careers. Unofficial email systems and texts are preferred. Information and evidence eventually vanishes. History loses out.

So you'd expect me to agree with Tate and Jenkins that they should keep the amount of money BP pays to Tate secret. Except, I can't quite bring myself to see it in the same light. Either BP's sponsorship is a generous amount, in which case they come out smelling of roses, or it's less than we might expect, in which case we could ask why BP gets so much logo space in Tate (even the main hang is called the 'BP Display') when in reality it's we humble taxpayers who should get the credit. In other words, Tate's sponsorship deals are hardly nuclear secrets. Tate (to the tune of nearly £22m last year) is a public institution, and its accounts, which will never be great matters of state, should be publicly available. As Tate's own website states:

Tate is accountable to the public via Parliament for the services it provides. As such, it is required to demonstrate that it is conducting its operations as economically and effectively as possible.

But Tate too often has a kneejerk reaction to keep things secret. When I recently asked Tate for information on how much they spend on storage costs (for this article in The Financial Times), I was given mis-information, and led a merry dance on entirely spurious grounds. Other institutions, such as the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery - which actually shares the same storage facility as Tate - happily told me all I wanted to know. Why could not Tate?

So, in this instance, I'm with Liberate Tate. Release the figures - all of them. 

Update - a reader writes:

As a retired “senior executive” in the Government of Canada, and a former and current historian of sorts, I endorse your concerns with the potential for knee-jerk "transparency” to undermine honest policy discussion within government bodies, and the historical record, but I also endorse your view that “the facts” should be public, such as the Tate’s financing. Not “deliberation”, for the most part, but definitely all “the facts”.  I add that the quid pro quo for necessary protection of “deliberation” should be solid, even generous, financial support both for public reporting of “the facts”, including maximum data, and for independent capacity to assess and analyze facts, data, evidence.  This quid pro quo is too often forgotten, or actively suppressed by governments such as, unfortunately, my own.  Obviously this goes well beyond museums and arts bodies….

Update II - another reader writes:

The BP contributions should be public because they get a deduction from income and the shareholder is entitled to know the amount of a discretionary non operating expense.

While another reader with FoI experience writes:

I work in FOI too in Australia. For what it is worth, in my view a factual figure is different to deliberations on issues and decisions to be made - and in the circumstances described regarding the Tate, should be released under FOI.

Update III - Dr Matt Loder says, via Twitter, that I am:

[...] in favour of corporate criminals, environmental vandals, using our national heritage to whitewash their reputations.

And worse. 

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