The Private Money Paradox: A Short Story on Art, Wealth, and Corruption

Private sponsorship in the arts is a far cry from a modern concept; it is, in fact, a support system reliant upon mutual benefit that is also deeply rooted in history. We can trace the progression of various models of patronage in art history from Renaissance to Modernism, from merchants to monarchs. Although the working mechanism of art sponsorship in the corporate era consists of much more complex and controversial systems, it nevertheless preserves its very essence. Ethical concerns and corruption, however, has always been a disconcerting issue for artists and cultural institutions who benefit from private funding. This article will analyse the nature of corporate sponsorship through both historical and modern examples.

The Medicis

The infamous House of Medici in the Republic of Florence was not only known for its contribution to the artistic revival in the city but its conspiracies, bribery practices, and violent methods of eliminating their competitors in the financial field (Hibbert, 1979, pp. 51-2). The Medicis utilised various forms of artistic patronage to clean up their reputation all while laundering money acquired from illegal sources (Van Helden, 1995). Almost all of the major artists of the era, such as Michelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci, however, were all financially supported by the Medicis in the form of commissioning artworks. The vibrant artistic texture of the Late Renaissance Florence was predominantly due to the Medicis’ financial investments in the most prolific artists of the era. The patronage model, which was so popular at the time and highly supported by affluent merchant families and the church, provided artists the most needed resources to create works and a platform to showcase their talent.

The Rockefellers

In the contemporary world, the exact model still applies. The owner of Standard Oil Company John D. Rockefeller Jr originally founded the philanthropically focused Rockefeller Foundation shortly after being charged guilty of corruption and illegal business conduct by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1911 (Economist, 1999). Rockefeller family too, like the Medicis, have many fields of interest regarding their sponsorships. Their legacy includes but not limited to medical schools, universities, art galleries and museum collections. Most notably, one of the biggest modern art museums in the world, The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was co-founded by his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (Museum of Modern Art – Museum History, 2016).

MOMA is also known to be the first museum in the United States ever to exhibit European artists in the early 20th Century. The institution, to this day, remains as influential as ever. Perhaps in an effort to make use of this influence David Rockefeller, the youngest child of John D. Rockefeller Jr and the previous chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase, was quoted in 1967 in stating that art “can provide a company with extensive publicity and advertising, a brighter public reputation and an improved corporate image” (Evans, 2016, pp. 11-15). Such succinct statement sadly reflects the larger motives behind the current and most popular model for corporate sponsorship. It also fundamentally undermines the socially progressive characteristics of art, ultimately reducing it into a mere tool for cleansing the corporate image which evokes distrust. Sadly, the history of sponsorship in the arts repeatedly displays a theme of incredibly wealthy and politically influential families whose names almost always have been associated with corporate deceit.

The Kochs

Koch family of the Koch Industries, who hold companies in oil, gasoline, paper and chemical in the United States, have also been significantly active and influential in the political arena. They sponsor many natural history and science museums around the United States in addition to holding chairs in these institutions. Many critics believe that the family’s hand in their sponsored museums penetrates deeper into the curatorial programming and that they uses their position to revive their corporation’s reputation (Evans, 2016, p. 11).

Koch Family, like many other corporate sponsors of cultural institutions, have been receiving criticism for being involved in financial lobbying for quite some time. The problematic with Koch family’s sponsorships in a museum like the National Museum of American History is, most prominently, the environmental catastrophes with which the fossil fuel industry is ever more associated. However, Koch family are also renowned global warming sceptics with a track record of funding projects working against the climate change legislation in the United States. Their charitable organisation Charles Koch Foundation is known to have made numerous donations to global-warming denier groups (Vidal, 2010). In 2010, Greenpeace organisation published an in-depth report on the Kochs which fully revealed that “The Koch Brothers have sent at least $88,810,770 directly to 80 groups denying climate change science since 1997” (Ruelas and Greenpeace, no date).

In 2014, the Natural History Museum organised an exhibition exploring the impact of climate change on the habitants of disadvantageous regions of the world. At the same time, in another room of the museum, “The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins” exhibition, in an undermining tone, brushed over the issue of climate change as not a scientific fact but as a mere speculation, reflecting Koch Family’s personal views on global warming. An inconsistency of this kind in the public programme is deeply damaging to a cultural institution and a glaring indication of their corporate sponsor’s level of involvement in the museum’s curatorial decisions.

In 2015, oil millionaire David Koch resigned from his position of twenty-three years on the board of National Museum of American History due to rigorous petitioning by scientists for the museum to call off its oil sponsorship. The author of ‘Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts’ Mel Evans so brilliantly writes that Koch’s resignation “could signal that Big Oil’s efforts to sanitise its public image in the glamorous hallways of cultural institutions around the globe are finally beginning to wear thin” (Evans, 2016, p.11)

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the largest museum in the United States with an incredibly vast collection of works ranging from the ancient antiquities to contemporary art. The Met, however, has long been involved in a controversy over questionable sources of its collections of historical artefacts. Peter Watson, co-author of “The Medici Conspiracy”, suggests that the Met, in the past, closely worked with suspicious collectors whose collections were suspected to be full of looted items illegally unearthed and smuggled out of Mediterranean countries (Watson and Todeschini, 2007, pp. 106–108). As a result, the Met fought lengthy and expensive legal battles against the governments of Italy and Turkey who requested for their ancient heritage to be repatriated. The museum eventually lost the lawsuits alongside most of the items in the collection. Similarly, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, in his 2015 documentary “Francofonia”, reveals this peculiar relationship between museum’s collections and their acquisition strategies in the backdrop of the Louvre during the WW2. This masterfully executed film subtly hints that almost every historical and cultural artefact in museums once was a war trophy, looted from the nations defeated in battles.

An excerpt from Francofonia, Alexander Sokurov, 2015

One of the most prominent artists working in a political context, Hans Haacke, throughout 1970’s and 80’s, extensively examined the link between art institutions, corrupt governments, and corporations. His 1985 installation outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York “Metromobiltan” exposed American oil giant Mobil’s sponsorship of one of the museum’s exhibitions about the Treasures of Ancient Nigeria. Haacke, in this research-based installation, revealed Mobil’s portfolio of industrial exploitation and its historical links with the apartheid regime (Putnam, 2009, p. 109).

This occurrence, again, points out to the inevitable contradictions between public programming of museums and the nature of their private sponsor’s actions in various communities around the world. In this case, an exhibition originally intended to celebrate African cultures thus became overridden by a narrative of malicious corporate acts, if not for Haacke, would have stayed hidden from the public eye.

Of course, the world has changed a great deal since 1985, and the relationship between corporations and major museums kept on expanding. The internet, however, made it a lot easier to dig deep into past scandals and unethical activities of companies, organisations, political bodies and administrations. The public is now, more than ever, questioning the involvement of the fossil fuel industry and other big corporations in the arts while expressing a great deal of discontent via both physical protests and online channels. This it to say that the 21st century is the era of corporate whistleblowers, the likes of Linda Almonte, a banker who recently revealed that her former employer J.P. Morgan Chase’s illegal credit card fraud sadly left millions of U.S. citizens in perpetual debt. (Taibbi, 2012). J.P. Morgan Chase, briefly mentioned earlier in this article, sponsors some of the biggest museums and art institutions in the United States from American Museum of Natural History to Whitney Museum of American Art to Guggenheim and, The Met. Another most recent data leak in the following paragraphs also concerns one of the British Museums and Tate’s very own controversial sponsor.

Hans Haacke, MetroMobiltan, 1985. Fiberglass construction, three banners, and photomural


The Deepwater Horizon oil spill began in April 2010 after an explosion and continued leaking petroleum and numerous carcinogenic chemicals into the ocean for years. BP Gulf of Mexico disaster is recognised to be the most disastrous oil spill in history. This accident not only thoroughly crippled the welfare of marine life and the region’s ecology but also negatively impacted many aspects of people’s lives in coastal areas. In 2014, BP was finally found guilty of gross negligence and faced the largest criminal settlement in US history. Six years later, in 2016, an online data leak revealed that the company’s internal reports, which clearly showed many crucial technical issues and near-misses prior the accident, were never resolved (Carrington, 2016).

Shortly after this disaster BP, in an effort to wash away its sins, pledged to give £10 million to its sponsored institutions within five years. Divided amongst all other BP sponsored organisations, however, Tate received such a small fraction of this money which eventually made the public question whether this absurd amount of funding was worth associating with an unethical corporation after all. After years of heavy campaigning from social activist groups such as Platform London and Art Not Oil Coalition, on March 2016 Tate announced that it will not be renewing its BP sponsorship deal. Regardless of the magnitude of the disaster and all the scandals it brought along, BP, to this day, retains its financial status and furthermore continues to boost its profits (Evans, 2015).

Activist group Art Not Oil staging a protest at the Tate Britain in 2013.
Photo: Martin LeSanto-Smith/Art Not Oil via Facebook

Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones argues in a 2010 article that in the light of recent severe cuts to the funding of arts by the state, whether or not a sponsorship comes from an oil corporation is not inherent to the discussion. The most important thing, he states, that institutions like Tate can afford to continue putting up exhibitions and supporting artists; he then adds, “if they can get money from Satan himself, they should take it” (Jones 2010). While the critics and the public are divided on the issue, some favouring the continuity of arts regardless of the issue of shady sponsorship, others believe that the cultural institutions have a moral responsibility to people, it becomes harder for majority even to find a moral line to draw.

In its environmental policy, accessible to public on its website, Tate clearly demonstrates an ecological sensitivity. Whereas, BP is a corporation known to have engaged in an illegal enterprise for quite some time and guilty of an enormous industrial disaster. BP’s sponsorship of Tate undoubtedly goes against the museum’s aim of “continually improving environmental performance through taking action to reduce these impacts, including reducing pollution and the risk of pollution (Tate, no date). In short, art institutions must avoid such discrepancies between their ethos and their actions to maintain their credibility and ensure the continuity of their audience support.

In this particular instance, however, let us remember that Tate is not a newcomer to dirty money. We can trace Tate’s corporate sponsorship all the way back to its foundation. Formerly known as the National Gallery of British Art, Tate Britain was originally built by the founder of Tate & Lyle, Henry Tate, a businessman who obtained his wealth through colonial sugar trade. Keeping this fact in mind, are the art-goers constantly reminded of the British Empire’s crimes while walking amongst Tate’s collection or do they simply absorb the experience of art, as if the two are separated from one another? How do institutions dark histories perpetually remain invisible despite the fact that the remnants of such past is always on display? Curators can not change an institution’s difficult past. They can, however, employ certain strategies to critique this past by working towards decolonising the collections. An unremarkably faint example of such effort includes “Artist and Empire” exhibition is at Tate Britain which ran between 25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016. The exhibition focused on the artworks produced during the colonial era which aimed to depict the violence and horrors of Victorian imperialism. Epic compositions and over-dramatisation, coupled with god-like depictions of figures in the act of committing atrocities sadly achieved nothing other than to glorify colonial violence.

Rule Britannia, Edward Armitage’s Retribution, 1858. Photograph: Leeds Museums and Galleries

Writer and art critic J.J. Charlesworth compares corporate sponsorship to government funding, stating that while the former might acquire wealth via illegal practices, the latter “actually goes to war and destroys lives” (Charlesworth, 2010, p.36). He argues that accepting either of these sponsorships does not imply the museums are involving in their politics in any way, and we should retain our critical thought when approaching the subject.

In conclusion, the private money has always been a part of the arts. If we set out to exorcise the art institutions from its controversial funding, we would sadly be missing the point. A vast majority of publicly displayed art is a by-product of a traditional patronage system which has sustained itself for centuries. The real concern should not lie in accepting or rejecting corporate funding but in allowing the sponsors to dictate institutions’ functioning. Although every instance laid out in this essay is unique and should be analysed within a relevant context, the most alarming issue still proves to be corporate involvement in institutions’ public exhibition programme. Sponsors holding any influence on museums’ core decision-making processes and curatorial strategies is, thereupon, a fundamentally critical issue which needs to be addressed. The danger, therefore, lies in a possible future where the corporate culture completely oozes into the core of world’s arts institutions, diluting and further undiversifying the arts unless clear boundaries are drawn between the institutions and its private sponsors. From Medicis of Renaissance Florence to Rockefellers of post 9/11 North America, the story of corruption seems follow the same pattern. Corporations “art-washing” their dwindling public image by sponsoring museums, festivals and cultural events is a widespread practice in the contemporary world. While corporations are not necessarily synonymous with evil, whether or not power leads to corruption is still a popular debate.

Sheyda A. Khaymaz

January 2017

Featured Image

Amy Scaife’s protest performance Human Cost at the Tate Britain’s Duveen gallery in 2011. Courtesy Liberate Tate


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Carrington, D. (2016) Leaked BP report reveals serious near-miss accidents. Available at: (Accessed: 27 December 2016).

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Evans, M. (2016) ‘Painting with Oil.’, Dissent (00123846), 63, pp. 11–15.

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Jones, J. (2010) Tate is right to take BP’s money. Available at: (Accessed: 20 December 2016).

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Perry, C. (2013) ‘Art & Oil.’, Art Monthly, (369), pp. 7–10.

Putnam, J. (2009) Art and artifact: The museum as medium. London: Thames & Hudson.

Ruelas, G. and Greenpeace (no date) Koch industries: Secretly funding the climate denial machine. Available at: (Accessed: 15 January 2017).

Taibbi, M. (2012) J.P. Morgan Chase’s ugly family secrets revealed. Available at: (Accessed: 18 January 2017).

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Van Helden, A. (1995) The Galileo Project. Available at: (Accessed: 7 December 2016).

Vidal, J. (2010) US oil company donated millions to climate sceptic groups, says Greenpeace US oil company donated millions to climate sceptic groups, says Greenpeace. Available at: (Accessed: 18 January 2017).

Watson, P. and Todeschini, C. (2007) The Medici conspiracy: The illicit journey of looted antiquities–from Italy’s tomb raiders to the world’s greatest museums. New York: Public Affairs, U.S.

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