Oil and Gas Sponsorship in the Arts

Mayor Dutch cultural institutions receive sponsorship from oil and gas companies. The fact that the money behind these deals comes from the industry that is the driving force of runaway climate change, and therefore is as dirty as the money coming from the tobacco industry, doesn’t need further explanation nowadays. A group of artists, activists, researchers and critics have started a collaboration to challenge these dirty sponsorships, under the name Fossil Free Culture NL.

What follows  here is the first analysis on the influence of oil and gas corporations on cultural institutions in The Netherlands.

Who sponsors whom?

In The Netherlands, the following sponsor relations between cultural institutions and fossil fuel companies are found:

  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam – Shell
  • Mauritshuis, The Hague – Shell
  • NEMO Science Museum, Amsterdam – Shell
  • EYE Film Museum, Amsterdam – Shell
  • Concertgebouw, Amsterdam – Shell
  • Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest, Rotterdam – Shell
  • Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam – Aramco
  • Scheepvaartmuseum, Amsterdam – BP
  • Noord Nederlands Orkest – Gasterra, Energy Valley
  • Groninger Museum, Groningen – GasTerra, Gasunie
  • Drents Museum, Assen – NAM (Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij, owned by Exxon and Shell)

We can observe from this list that most institutions are located in the Randstad – a megalopolis in the central-western part of The Netherlands consisting primarily of the four largest Dutch cities. Moreover, not a single contemporary art museum is sponsored by fossil companies; while all other museums located in the museum square in Amsterdam are on this list, the Stedelijk Museum is free of fossil sponsorship. All the cultural institutions on this list don’t represent a threat to the oil companies, since it is very unlikely they will organize activities that could confront their operations or damage their image.


How does it work?

There are two ways of sponsoring a cultural institution: ongoing or one-time sponsorship. For example, the relationship between Shell and the EYE Film Museum is a type or ongoing sponsorship. Shell is namely a member of EYE’s business club, which means that for €4,800 a year, Shell gets its logo placed on the website and at the entrance of the building, it gets free tickets, free use of the gallery spaces, and invitations for exclusive ‘business club’ events. These events are usually closed cocktails or diner parties with the board of directors, high-level management and other business club members. The same amounts apply to the relationships between The Rotterdam Philharmonic and Shell and The National Maritime Museum and BP. Probably the sponsors receive the same privileges. The asymmetric character of these relationships is remarkable: the sponsored institutions that normally work with limited budgets offer a great deal of benefits to their sponsors, while the sponsors donate insignificant amounts in comparison with their total operating budgets and yearly profits.

Het Mauritshuis –the Royal Picture Gallery– in The Hague receives a yearly amount of €100,000 from Shell. On 22 February 2012, Het Mauritshuis and Shell Nederland started a partnership, whereby Shell became Het Mauritshuis’s corporate sponsor for a six-year period. Besides this, the two parties also launched a joint research project, which will carry out technical research into the work of Dutch painters like Jan Steen. This project is part of Shell’s “Partners in Science” program, which Van Gogh Museum is also part of.

One-time donations are less preferred because they don’t help to build the image and reputation of the business and enhance its social responsibility.

Museums and other cultural institutions often need a big amount of money for renovations or other large projects. Due to the recent government budget cuts in The Netherlands, these institutions are forced to request additional support from the business sector. Even though the government still finances most of the projects and businesses only a small part, all publicity goes to the sponsor companies. The most recent example is the renovation of Het Mauritshuis, whereby Shell contributed with 3 million euros. The king Willem Alexander opened the doors of the gallery on June 17 2014, at the background a flag with the Shell logo hung next to the Dutch flag.


Why do fossil fuel companies sponsor cultural institutions?

“Shell hopes that (with the sponsorship of Het Mauritshuis) the public recognizes the social side of the company by spreading the results of the research projects to a broader public. The company also wants to make science accessible in order to seduce the youth to undertake technical education programs, especially through the exchange of knowledge and experiences that exists in both organisations. Moreover, Shell wants to present itself in a unique way as a potential employer and wants to stimulate company pride among its employees.”[1]There are various reasons why fossil fuel companies choose to sponsor cultural institutions.

  1. Gain access to the elite

The most important reason to sponsor cultural institutions is to gain access to the elite. In Shell’s case, it means to consolidate its existing relation with the Dutch upper class. The cultural scene is a place where business, politics, culture and the wealthy elites meet. These meetings also take place in the board organisms. The board is often inhabited by companies’ CEOs and other top managers.

The case of the Rijksmuseum that receives sponsorship from Amraco, the state-owned oil company of Saudi Arabia, can be seen under these interests. There’s almost no visibility or publicity given to this relationship. However, there are many ways for discrete meetings to take place, for instance the ‘CEO dinner’ (Concertgebouw), ‘Directors’ breakfast’ or the several other events organized by the institutions to invite their sponsors.

  1. Publicity

To achieve favorable publicity about the business is not the main goal of these relationships. Only the partnerships with the Van Gogh Museum and the Mauritshuis deliver Shell significant national publicity. This is not the case in the rest of the sponsorships.

  1. Keep employees satisfied

For fossil fuel companies it is extremely important to keep its employees satisfied, because environmental organizations are constantly campaigning against them and sending a negative image to the world. Sponsoring cultural institutions represents something to feel good about for their employees.

  1. Create the illusion that fossil fuel companies are essential and irreplaceable in our society.

Multinational giants as Shell invest in massive social responsibility programs to create the illusion that they contribute to society in a positive way and therefore are irreplaceable. Through these programs they present a distorted image of their core business and practices. While in reality, the extraction of fossil fuels produces ecosystems depletion, undermines the livelihoods and well-being of communities, and causes global warming, it is presented as a harmless practice. All this is deceitfully hidden under the name of developmental aid, innovation, social responsibility, etc.

  1. To play a crucial role in local communities.

It is important to observe that only two oil and gas sponsorships in the Netherlands are located outside the megalopolis: Groningen and Almelo. In Groningen, where the largest natural gas field in Europe is located, gas companies maintain a large sponsor network with local partners. By doing this, it secures the dependence of the local community in the gas company and it makes the area attractive to future employees.


[1] ‘Winnaars Sponsorring 2014’ catalogue. Published by Sponsor Ringen Foundation.