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Artists Protest Design Museum After Private Event For Arms Dealer

More than 20 artists and designers are calling for work to be removed after a reception linked to the arms industry was held in the museum

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, installation view, 2018. Courtesy: Design Museum

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, installation view, 2018. Courtesy: Design Museum

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, installation view, 2018. Courtesy: Design Museum

London’s Design Museum has come under fire after allowing its building to be hired for a controversial private event connected to the arms trade. More than 20 artists and designers are now calling for their work to be removed from display at the institution.

The museum gave permission to Italian aerospace manufacturers Leonardo to hold a reception on its premises on 17 July. The event was linked to the Farnborough International Airshow – regarded by some as an arms fair. Leonardo are one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers. At the same time, the museum is currently holding the exhibition ‘Hope to Nope’ which surveys the visual culture of various social and political movements over the last decade. Several artists involved in the show and elsewhere in the museum are now demanding their work be removed by 1 August.

Hong Kong artist and activist Sampson Wong told frieze that he had loaned a number of objects from the Umbrella Movement Visual Archive – a collection of objects preserved from the 2014 pro-democracy protests – to the Design Museum. ‘Museums working with activists and socially-minded artists should actively respond to oppositions concerning unethical practices,’ he told frieze. ‘I am shocked that at the same time as they superficially celebrate our protest materials, the museum is hosting a reception for companies like Chemring, the arms dealers who supplied the tear gas that was used on us.’

Richard Barbrook, part of radical videogame collective Games for the Many, told frieze that the exhibition was displaying one of their works titled Corbyn Run (2017) – a video game in which the leftist Labour leader chases after bankers and Conservative party ministers. Barbrook said it was ‘hypocritical’ for the museum to programme a show of ‘radical protest art’, and then be surprised about the uproar around allowing an arms dealer to hold an event in the same building. ‘Either you do one or the other.’

Andrew Smith of activist group Campaign Against Arms Trade told frieze: ‘The reason the arms dealers wanted to use the Design Museum is because it's such a prestigious venue with great work and a great reputation. By allowing its facilities to be used the Museum has given practical support and a veneer of legitimacy to an industry that is driven by war and conflict.’ Smith added that museums should be focused on the public good. ‘They should not be hosting arms companies.’

Corbyn Run, 2017, still. Courtesy: Games for the Many

Corbyn Run, 2017, still. Courtesy: Games for the Many

Corbyn Run, 2017, still. Courtesy: Games for the Many

In an open letter, published on the Campaign Against Arms Trade website, the artists write: ‘It is deeply hypocritical for the museum to display and celebrate the work of radical anti-corporate artists and activists, while quietly supporting and profiting from one of the most destructive and deadly industries in the world. ‘Hope to Nope’ is making the museum appear progressive and cutting-edge, while its management and trustees are happy to take blood money from arms dealers.’ They demand that the museum follow ethical guidelines that avoids funding from arms, tobacco and fossil fuel industries. Signatories include artist Peter Kennard, curator Gavin Grindon and activists Benny Tai and Joshua Wong.

Danny Chivers from activist group BP or not BP?, who also contributed work to the museum exhibition, commented: ‘Our object in ‘Hope to Nope’ – a Shakespearean ruff in the shape of the BP logo – specifically challenges the unethical funding of arts institutions. So it’s jaw-dropping that the museum hosted an event for one of the most unethical industries on the planet while displaying our object on its wall.’

The Design Museum told frieze that it was in the process of responding to the signatories to the letter. ‘As a charity, 98% of the museum’s running costs come from admissions, retail, fundraising and event hire, such as the one hosted that night. This was a private event of which there was no endorsement by the museum,’ the museum said in a statement. ‘However, we take the response to Tuesday’s event seriously and we are reviewing our due diligence policy related to commercial and fundraising activities.’

Several art institutions and events have received criticism in the past for links to the arms trade. In March of this year, arms producer BAE Systems retracted sponsorship of the arts festival the Great Exhibition of the North, following public criticism of its role as a ‘premier partner’ in the event, and several acts threatening to withdraw after learning of its links to the weapons industry.

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