Should ‘art’ distance itself from the fossil fuel industry? Eelko Huizingh argues for pressure on the boiler with the door ajar.
Can the Groninger Museum be sponsored by Shell and Gasunie? And Drenth’s museum at NAM? In a recent essay (‘ The Battle of the Museum ‘, DvhN , 02-02) Sepp Eckenhausen, co-director of Platform Beeldende Kunst, took a clear position: the fossil fuel industry does bad things, and therefore ‘art’ must distance itself from it. And definitely don’t take money from it.
Unfortunately, the essay is not without exaggeration. ‘Industries destroying the earth’, ‘destroying the earth’, and ‘the earth is literally being destroyed beneath your feet’. Earth is a lump of rock with a core of metal floating in immeasurable space. Even if we pump up all the oil and gas, that lump won’t suddenly fall apart.
However, it is clear that our extensive use of fossil fuels is leading to climate change in a direction that is uncomfortable for humans. Therefore, the energy transition is an important topic that I have written about several times. Grotesque exaggeration is superfluous and has the opposite effect of danger.
Are oil farmers holding back the energy transition?
So back to the opening question: is it good for fossil energy companies to sponsor art? I know little about art, but the opponents’ argument is based on the statement that the oil farmers are holding back the energy transition. And I can say something about that.
Shell, Gasunie and NAM make money from our use of fossil energy. This motivates them for financial reasons to do this as long and as much as possible. And of course current energy prices encourage this behavior. Yet business strategies are not set in stone but changeable with changing circumstances. And those circumstances are changing.
Will the oils promote the energy transition? Like so much in life, it’s a matter of ability and will. I can be brief about ‘ability’: the oil farmers have a lot of equipment, infrastructure, people, knowledge, networks and money with which they can significantly accelerate the energy transition. Wanting to is another story. Four key players determine whether oil farmers actually change their strategy. These are shareholders, top management, staff and the external environment.
Concrete results are more important to shareholders
For shareholders, concrete short-term financial results are generally more important than uncertain profits in the distant future. With current energy prices, we can certainly expect some pressure from them to reverse the trend.
I’m a little less negative about top management. It is true that their entire careers were in fossil energy, and they feel pressure from shareholders, but eventually they will also be aware of the need for the energy transition, and they are also just people, with children and grandchildren who ask questions.
Then staff. Shell, Gasunie and NAM have always been attractive employers for young, talented and ambitious people. But (potential) employees now face the question: do I want to work for a company that is part of the problem or part of the solution? And they are mature enough to ask this question in job interviews.
Finally, the external environment. A vague term that refers to all of us. It is therefore about consumers, action groups, media, museums and the public. Don’t underestimate the power of the external environment, which can hit oil farmers at painful points: in their wallets (do you want to keep filling up with Shell?), their image (because that’s why they sponsor art) and their leverage (legislation ). A strong external pressure is necessary, because the temptation to ‘greenwash’ is great. Shell has recently been criticized for this several times.
The door is not completely closed
Back to the question: is it good for oil farmers to sponsor art? I’d say let them prove themselves worth it. Let artists be critical, the art institutions attach conditions to sponsorship and the media continue to fulfill their critical role. And then go for a combination: Press the boiler and the door together so as not to lose sight of the higher goal.
Eelko Huizingh is associate professor in innovation management at the University of Groningen