by Maggie Flynn
The following text accompanies seven pages of research in graphical form visualizing the impacts of relationships between extractive industries and the cultural sector in Canada.
Project by Maggie Flynn
Design by Krishna Balakrishnan
A quick reading of this work might induce scorn toward certain entities. But mining, oil, and gas companies work within the system offered to them by the government of Canada. And when companies are caught stepping out of bounds of the law, the resulting fines pale in comparison to their profits. In other words, every piece of bad news in this work is enabled by this nation’s legal and regulatory environment.
With this in mind, how do the choices made by Canadian museums, galleries, and art festivals to partner with extractive industries shape culture in Canada? How do the relationships between cultural institutions, extractive industries, Indigenous communities, workers, and ecosystems contribute to belief systems that influence economic choices, political will, and legislation?
Corporate sponsorships are mutually beneficial agreements between non-profits and corporations. When cultural institutions partner with a mining or oil company, they promote a hospitable environment for extractive industries. Agreements require deliverables from the non-profit, usually leveraging their audiences as targets for the sponsor’s messaging. When the sponsor is a soap company, they’re trying to sell more soap. When the sponsor is a petroleum company, though, I don’t believe they are trying to get consumers to use more gas or plastic. I think they need the average voter to see the company as a friendly face whose projects don’t need to be scrutinized, in an industry that doesn’t need to be too closely regulated.
I’m not suggesting conspiratorial motives coming from behind closed doors; I’m describing very mainstream ways that philanthropy functions in Canada. There’s a national organization, Business / Arts, whose mission is to “build strong lasting partnerships between the arts, business and government in Canada.”1 This mission could theoretically be fulfilled without artwashing the activities of irresponsible companies. But having completed the two levels of training by Business / Arts, I can confirm there were no resources (even when I asked for them) to help arts professionals determine the appropriateness of lending the sway of their institution to the reputation repair of a given corporation. Non-profit board members and staff need to assess whether a sponsorship is worth the revenue if it damages the esteem given to the institution by their audience. This is difficult to do, especially when, for example, a C-suite executive of the sponsoring corporation is on the board.
It is not a realistic objective for cultural institutions to say there is no dirty
money in their budget. I can’t even say there is no dirty money in my pocket. In a country where historical and contemporary colonialism has been financed by all of the national banks, uncontaminated dollars are scarce.
Rather, I’d propose that cultural institutions choose not to assist companies in obscuring their records of environmental and human rights abuses by offering them positive brand association. In particular, it seems important for cultural institutions attempting reconciliation with Indigenous communities not to partner with companies that are, for example, waging legal battles against Indigenous peoples’ inherent rights.
Cultural institutions have the power to establish new norms, but we need to make changes rather than carry on with dated fundraising strategies. Such changes may include accepting that the bottom line must shift in order to prioritize institutional integrity. However, we can also hold space for the possibility that by reallocating the energy dedicated to cultivating and stewarding certain corporate relationships, institutions might actually find a stronger return on investment elsewhere. A few propositions for practices to adopt:
- Redirect the time of fundraising staff to seek sponsorship from companies who pay living wages, who take responsibility for their supply chains, and whose business models don’t depend on displacing Indigenous people or the irreversible destruction of ecosystems.
- Create institutional policies that outline criteria for when a corporate sponsor is considered in conflict with the institution’s vision. Make space for Indigenous staff, board members, and community stakeholders to shape such policies, be part of decision-making, and receive appropriate compensation for their knowledge and labour.
- Shift philanthropy norms away from expectations of acclaim. Make it gauche to name a role, project, gallery, or building after a corporation or wealthy person. Make it exciting to involve diverse stakeholders in establishing a meaningful name, and/or more dignified forms of exchange. Celebrate anonymous donors loudly.
- When a non-profit board member is also a corporate director or a high-level executive, ensure that the registration summary of their company’s in-house and consultant lobbyists is provided to fellow board members, to consider whether the member’s impartiality may be compromised on certain subjects.
There is enough brilliance in the arts community—among cultural workers, artists, audiences—to imagine many more ways to cultivate better practices in fundraising and board governance. But leadership needs the will to listen and enact change. In the meantime, cultural institutions that have no standards for their corporate sponsors should expect scrutiny.
Notes on Process: Every relationship represented in this flow chart is more complex than could be contained in these pages. As a settler making work about an industry that disproportionately impacts Indigenous communities, I prioritized information coming directly from leadership or grassroots groups of affected communities. While many instances noted in this work involve clear damage caused by extractive industries, not all examples are meant to be cast in the same light. In particular, I felt it important not to ignore Impact Benefit Agreements between Indigenous nations and extractive companies when they came up in my research. I have no value judgement on such agreements, because I support Indigenous self-determination, full stop. As within any community, contrasting opinions may exist, even when such agreements are in place. To understand the perspectives of those on the ground, a deeper engagement is required.
The following citations correspond to the annotations in Trickle Down, by Maggie Flynn.
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