I went to the superb exhibition “Rembrandt: The Late Works” at the National Gallery yesterday. The exhibition is sponsored by Shell - quite strongly as it happens. There are a couple of prominent Shell promotional displays and the Shell emblem is visible all over, though not within the actual gallery where the works are to be seen. This suggests that the Shell sponsorship was financially quite large, even that the event, in straightened times for the Arts, might not have gone ahead without it.
A couple of days earlier those opposed to the National Gallery’s involvement with Shell mounted a protest in Trafalgar Square. There had also been protests also when the exhibition opened in October (see photo above). In a democracy we have to allow peaceful protests by individuals or groups opposed to things they consider wrong. The protestors against Shell are quite within their rights and the things they complain about - from oil spills and gas flaring in the Niger Delta to tar sands projects in Canada are legitimate areas of concern. In the minds of many Shell is an extremely unethical choice of sponsor for the National Gallery. But there is a moral maze here.
During the latter part of my Shell career I was responsible for a number of Shell sponsorships and the related PR activity in the Middle East. It was my job, but I did it willingly in the main. The overriding objective was to associate Shell with events and activities that conferred value or prestige on the brand. The reverse was also often true. Shell’s sponsorship of something often added some legitimacy to an event. But this was in a region where an Oil Major such as Shell is broadly well thought of anyway! Here in Britain that is far from necessarily the case.
In the case of the National Gallery Shell’s involvement is far from gratuitous. There is actually a connection with Shell and the restoration of masterworks which is as interesting as it is surprising. Shell’s case for being involved, in the official programme, is persuasive. I am not buying the official line completely - the altruistic element of Shell’s involvement is only one reason and so is the technical and scientific case. For Shell the major benefit is prestige and the boost to their less than lilywhite reputation that the sponsorship seeks to create.
But what of the protestors? Their goal is to use the high visibility of the exhibition to publicise their causes and to give a focus to their campaign to persuade Arts bodies like the National Gallery not be financially supported by the likes of Shell. (There is a similar campaign in respect of BP and the Tate Gallery) . This is very polarising. Despite my Shell career and status as an (active) pensioner) I am a critic of the Corporation in some of what it does and how it does it. But I am also a supporter the Arts and if exhibitions like the Rembrandt would only be possible with money from Shell or BP then I can see the case to be made in their favour. Especially if the rationale for involvement is more than tenuous - as does seem to be the case for Shell and the National Gallery. I personally remain open-minded on the subject. It is a moral maze and I’m sure that I’m not the only one struggling top find my way around !