As the Guardian campaigns for The Wellcome Trust and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to withdraw investments from oil revenues –an issue that international philanthropist and campaigner for social justice, Mike Bloomberg, has previously been criticised for – and Liberate Tate succeeds in its Freedom of Information case to have redacted sponsorship agreements between Tate and BP released; it seems that philanthropists and cultural institutions are coming under greater scrutiny than ever before.

As Head of Fundraising at the Natural History Museum between 2000 and 2005, I established an organisational ethical policy for fundraising, the principles of which I have adhered to and advised on ever since; that no policy can cover every eventuality and that whilst certain principles related to the role and remit of an institution should be clear (as a family attraction, the Museum should not, for example, be advertising cigarettes), others should be examined and reviewed on a case by case basis, through an escalating hierarchy, as the situation requires. This policy led me to decline to sign two sponsorship agreements at the Museum: the first was a £1m donation from Shell. Given that the then Chairman of Shell, Lord Oxburgh, was also Chairman of the Museum at the time, it was clear that the organisation didn’t feel such an association was inappropriate. However, I didn’t consider it proper that the gift should be used as a green-washing tool through a three-year sponsorship of Wildlife Photographer of the Year and declined to sign the agreement. Likewise, when De Beers were secured as sponsors of the proposed Diamonds exhibition, I felt unable to sign an agreement for an exhibition that made no acknowledgement of blood diamonds and again declined to do so. In both cases the exhibitions went ahead despite my advice, leading to major protests at the Museum and in the latter case, the exhibition eventually closed. These scenarios pale in comparison to that now being faced by the Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where there are large-scale public protests for the removal of David Koch from the Board.

Looking back now in a climate of increasing public interest in and scrutiny of the ethics of cultural organisations, I feel that in many ways institutions like the Natural History Museum are less complicated ethical scenarios; what’s much more challenging is trying to establish what your ethical position should be as a theatre or art gallery, where the scope of your role and responsibilities are broader and less defined.

As previously mentioned, Tate Britain has come under particular scrutiny through the campaigning of groups such as Liberate Tate and Platform over its long-term association with BP. However, BP’s sponsorship of Tate Britain is one of four partnerships now in their 25th year (the others being The National Portrait Gallery, The British Museum and the Royal Opera House); it also has an association with the Royal Shakespeare Company initiated in 2012 as part of BP’s commitment around the Olympics. So why has Tate come under such specific pressure? What is clear is that the recent release of sponsorship agreements under the Freedom of Information Act brought to light the pressure staff had felt to keep the details of the partnership secret.

Personally I come at the issue from a different perspective. Whilst Director of PEN International, the international writers’ organisation which campaigns for freedom of expression, I’d noticed a number of occasions where pieces had been censored when religious texts were defamed in the art works; I consider this against my right to free speech; to offend and be offended. But this is not an issue, which is picked up or campaigned on because current arts lobby groups, are purely environmentally focused in their concerns. But what happens if the issue of the ethical position of cultural organisations is opened up more widely, as has already happened in mainstream charities with questions asked about the investment strategies of groups as diverse as Comic Relief and the Church of England, amongst others. How far do the responsibilities of arts institutions extend? And this is, of course, the issue that cash-strapped directors of institutions everywhere are asking themselves. How do they balance their responsibilities, as well as the books? I believe that this question plays into a wider issue, in which organisations are increasingly involved – what is the role of the cultural institution in society? At a time when the pursuit of funding, state and voluntary, means we are all trying, as the Warwick Commission report suggests, to communicate our value culturally, socially and economically, the ethical parameters within which we can be judged also extend.

What is of course deeply frustrating is that the same standards aren’t generally applied to state-sponsored events, such as the Olympics. And the brand police, which enforced the rights of the sponsors at the 2012 games, show how much value is placed on their financial contribution.

So what is the right way forwards for an institution trying to decide it’s ethical direction? Well, if one looks for a model of best practise, one might turn to the Young Vic which, under the direction of David Lan, has taken a holistic approach which sees the values it promotes manifest in every aspect of its work, including its environmental policy. But this approach doesn’t appeal to everyone and institutions must think about their audiences as well as their own values. They also must consider their overall mission, not just how it is interpreted under one artistic director. The commitment needs to be deeply embedded in the organisation, beyond the leadership if it is to be meaningful.

For me there are two aspects to be considered in response to the question of how ethical standards should be addressed. The first is that there are certain issues which the sector agrees are inappropriate to be associated with and we need a debate on that. This is a role which the Creative Industries Federation could perhaps play – as former Director of Article 19, John Kampfner is certainly more qualified than most to lead such a conversation. The second element comes back to understanding your mission and vision and reflecting that in your approach. Then audiences can choose whether yours is an institution they want to engage with and donors whether it is one they wish to support.

Finally, just as important as the scrutiny of the funding of cultural organisations is the need to celebrate philanthropy; whilst individual giving to the arts has grown exponentially, the number of formal charitable vehicles dedicated to their support – trusts and foundations – has not. In particular, foundations dedicated to capital projects are in decline and, as I’ve written elsewhere, I believe there is a looming crisis of capital pending if we don’t celebrate and offer incentives to encourage the establishment of new foundations. Scrutiny is critical, but so is pride in philanthropy if we want the arts to thrive.

Caroline McCormick  |  April 2015