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Kicking Private Interests Out of Public Institutions

by anonymous

Who funded our museums and galleries often feels abstracted from our experiences of visiting them — so why should we care about it?
BP Must Fall 1000 people protest inside the British Museum, February 2020, Ron Fassbender

In June, fossil fuel giant BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum finally ended. After 27 years, this announcement marked a huge achievement for campaigners that had fought long and hard to kick some of the world’s biggest polluters out of the arts. In particular, the campaign groups BP or not BP and Culture Unsustained played a huge role in this landmark victory, coordinating a series of disruptive protests in the museum’s main quad to pile on the pressure that ultimately led to this result.

While these activists should be applauded for their win, having worked in one of Britain’s museums and galleries, I know that there is a much more insidious culture at play in our public institutions. Our fight isn’t over until private interests are kicked out of them altogether.

Conflicting Interests

The British Museum, Natural History Museum, Tate Galleries and the V&A are among a number of institutions sponsored by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Non-departmental public bodies, as these organisations are called, are ‘publicly funded to deliver a public or government service’, though not as a ministerial department.

Another series of public galleries and museums sit within the Arts Council England National Portfolio (itself a non-departmental public body, responsible for the disbursement of public funds). The portfolio supports over a thousand organisations, including the Southbank Centre, Institute of Contemporary Arts and Serpentine Galleries.

Despite receiving millions of pounds per year in public funding, these organisations also employ ‘philanthropy’ teams — sometimes up to 20 people — whose sole focus is soliciting private donations, more often than not adding millions more to operational budgets.

In addition to a few red lines around the arms trade, gambling, pharmaceuticals and increasingly fossil fuels, for the most part, ‘ethical’ fundraising policies in such organisations come down to whether the potential public outrage outweighs the monetary value of any given donation. That means a whole host of dubious grants fall through the cracks, including multi-millionaire landlords turfing out working class tenants to make way for private luxury housing, business tycoons implicated in creating thousands of redundancies and beneficiaries of the Murdoch media empire.

Young V&A Art Gallery Museum London Bethnal Green
The Young V&A in Bethnal Green, Young V&A Instagram, @young.vam by David Parry

After being closed for refurbishment, the V&A recently reopened their new venue, the Young V&A, in Bethnal Green. They thank a number of funders in their press release, including The Buffini Chao Foundation. Set up by Sir Damon Buffini and his wife Lady Buffini, the foundation is dedicated to ‘promoting education and opportunities, [and has] supported many charities and their programmes, impacting thousands of children and young people in the UK and beyond.’

But with some digging, it’s not difficult to discover that Damon Buffini is not as shiny and heroic as his philanthropic ventures might suggest. One of Britain’s most notorious private equity barons, he was appointed Deputy Chair of the BBC in 2022, with the explicit remit to make the service ‘more commercial’, and to spearhead the campaign to overhaul the licence fee in favour of a Netflix-style subscription model. In 2004, his private equity firm Primera bought the AA in a deal that saw over 2,800 job losses. GMB’s national secretary Andy Prendergast described Sir Damon as 'a poster boy for the worst excesses of capitalism'.

The Aziz Foundation, which has supported The Roundhouse, Young Vic and the National Theatre, states that its charitable giving ‘is guided by principles of social justice, compassion and cooperation’. Yet Asif Aziz, its founder, has been dubbed by The Times as ‘the meanest landlord in Britain’, with a reputation for closing down pubs and community assets including nurseries, restaurants and shops to develop into luxury housing.

The Veronica and Lars Bane Foundation exists to ‘support organisations aiming to change the world for the better’ and has funded the Tate, Serpentine and The Roundhouse. Lars Bane, its co-founder, is a senior advisor at the $39 billion hedge fund Farallon Capital. The Freelands Foundation, which works to ‘broaden access to arts education and visual arts across the UK’ and has funded a number of projects aiming to decolonise the arts, is founded by Elisabeth Murdoch, a beneficiary of the viciously racist Murdoch empire. The list goes on.

The nefarious nature of philanthropic giving is no better exemplified than in the permanent closure of Lankelly Chase, a major British foundation with an endowment of £130 million, who cite philanthropy as a ‘function of colonial capitalism’ and call for bold new alternatives to ‘the cult of benevolence’.


Why should we care?

Who funded our museums and galleries often feels abstracted from our experiences of visiting them — so why should we care about it?

There is a fundamental contradiction between these organisations acting as public bodies but courting private interests too. Of course, there is an argument that these donors’ wealth is better put to use for public good than in their own pockets. This, however, obfuscates the reality of the relations being developed, which are fundamentally about reputation laundering for the filthy rich. Because no one gets money for nothing. A donation will be greeted by anything ranging from a logo brandished on the donor board at the entrance of a gallery and a series of luxurious private events, to a whole wing or gallery named in their honour in perpetuity. Take the Blavatnik building at the Tate: Len Blavatnik, Britain’s richest man with questionable ties to Russian oligarchs and Trump, becomes a heroic philanthropist committed to providing access to art in the name of the public good.

Inside the  Blavatnik building Tate Modern art gallery London
Inside the Blavatnik Building in the Tate Modern, Tate's Instagram via @myk_ng

Whatsmore, this culture creates a two-tier system in our public art institutions: multi-millionaires can expect private shows, complementary three course dinners and champagne. You don’t even have to have donated money yet to be invited to such an event — the mere fact you have it makes you eligible for five star treatment. All while the cost of a sandwich for a visiting member of the public averages £8 a pop and employees are yet to receive a pay rise in line with inflation, with disputes at both the British Museum and British Library still not concluded.

While the trend continues for arts organisations to centre equality, diversity and inclusion in their work, a chasm between their ideals and the material interests that prop them up emerges. It’s all well and good to address how the provenance of your collection might have its roots in harmful and violent histories of colonialism, but the drive to secure external sources of funding means that this work will always have a limit.

For example, in July 2019 the Natural History Museum published a blog post lamenting issues of representation and colonialism in the heritage sector, ending with the call to arms to make natural history collections truly inclusive. Yet just four years later, the museum was forced to issue an apology for hosting the National Conservatism gala, a group renowned for its extreme views on immigration and race, climate change and LGBTQ+ rights. According to the museum, they had no part in the events’ organisation, which was hosted by a third party who hired the space. At a cursory glance, such a hire would set you back anywhere between £4,600 - £8,000 per hour.

So, what do we do?

Museums and galleries are filled with staff members who are dedicated to providing art and culture to the public, with a drive to deliver a range of programmes for schools, visitors with disabilities or complex needs, and a focus on engaging historically and structurally underrepresented groups. But after successive government cuts spanning back to 2010, philanthropy is the sole means by which to achieve these, with limited internal funds available to redirect to new projects beyond ‘business as usual’. Undoubtedly these problems have only been compounded by intermittent closure over successive Covid lockdowns.

Workers’ interests are pitted firmly against taking action on private funding from dubious sources. Any career progression is predicated on one’s ability to innovate and drive forwards new initiatives, which comes with it all the baggage of attracting and sustaining additional funding. The stakes are high — to question or reject the philanthropic model means to sacrifice a career in the arts, which for many arts workers is not merely a job, but a vocation. Furthermore, the possibility of mass action by workers is hampered by prohibitive Trade Union legislation: any union campaign not focussed squarely on the terms and conditions of employment risks losing its recognition agreement altogether. Instead, most workers are inclined to grit their teeth and get on with it. And here we find yet another contradiction: the very people who see, day in day out, the problems of the philanthropic model are the very people who are least inclined — or actively forbidden — to do anything about it.

So we come back to the ambiguous ‘ethical’ fundraising policy, whereby the repercussions of public outrage are the key to rejecting funding. In that light, of course the sector no longer accepts money from BP. But that such a concerted public campaign had to take place to win this result is a symptom of a model that is fundamentally broken. Because for every Sackler there are hundreds more philanthropists waiting in the wings, asking for permission to swap their label of depraved capitalist for generous patron — and our museums and galleries continue to grant it. Our call must be to end the insidious culture of philanthropy in our public institutions. How we go about it is another question.


To protect the identity of the author this article has been anonymised.


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