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Private Event For an Arms Dealer? A Show of Protest Art? The Design Museum Needs to Pick a Side

The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to rethink who it accepts money from

On the evening of Tuesday 17 July, London’s Design Museum found itself split between two unlikely dinner dates. On one side of a wall, the museum was hosting a panel discussion titled ‘Corbynmania: Social Media and Jeremy Corbyn’ – part of a series of events to coincide with their ‘Hope to Nope’ show, which tracks the intersection between graphic design and socio-political explosions over the past decade. On the other side, the museum had given permission for a reception to be hosted by one of the world’s biggest weapons manufacturers, Leonardo – a private event linked to the Farnborough International Airshow, an arms fair.

Now more than 40 artists – including Shepard Fairey, designer of the iconic Obama ‘Hope’ poster – have demanded that their work be pulled from the exhibition ‘Hope to Nope’, in protest against the Italian arms dealer’s private event. With artists due to arrive this Thursday to remove their pieces, the Design Museum has been given real cause and urgency to review its fundraising policy.

Leonardo’s products include weaponized aircraft, drones, missiles and armoured vehicles. It produces the Eurofighter Typhoon, in conjunction with BAE Systems and France’s Airbus. The combat plane has been used by the Saudi regime in its military campaign in Yemen. In a war that has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people, human rights groups have drawn attention to the bombing of Yemeni markets, hospitals and schools – public places frequented by civilians, just like museum visitors.

Eurofighter Typhoon, Farnborough, 2010. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Eurofighter Typhoon, Farnborough, 2010. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Eurofighter Typhoon, Farnborough International Airshow, 2010. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo is no stranger to claims of artwashing either. In its previous incarnation as Finmeccanica, it was forced to pull its sponsorship of London’s National Gallery in 2012. Campaigners including artist Peter Kennard and writer Will Self protested a public arts institution playing advocate to the arms trade: ‘the gallery not only provides a gloss of legitimacy for a reprehensible trade; it is also providing very practical support for the arms industry,’ they wrote.

Now Leonardo is back. Chair of the Design Museum’s ‘Corbynmania: Social Media and Jeremy Corbyn’ panel, activist Ash Sarkar, declared ‘I’m furious’ on discovering the museum’s parallel event. ‘This is Britain’s arts establishment in a nutshell: co-opting radical image makers to stay relevant, and facilitating the social calendar of slaughterers to stay wealthy,’ Sarkar tweeted.

I’m furious, too. Especially as I hosted another ‘Hope to Nope’ panel at the Design Museum, discussing the ‘visual language of protest’, the month before. There we had discussed the relationship between the arts and social change, the ethical role of museums and galleries, and my work with Liberate Tate – an artist collective whose six-year campaign against BP sponsorship of Tate resulted in the ending of its decades-long deal.

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: BP or not BP?

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: BP or not BP?

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: BP or not BP?

I strongly believe museums and galleries have a fundamental ethical function. Public spaces where we consider past, present and future cultural shifts embody moral and ethical lines – wherever the governing bodies choose to draw them. The Design Museum has said in its latest statement that the Leonardo event was a ‘private party’ which ‘formed no part of the museum’s programme or had any endorsement from the museum.’ In the meantime, the museum will not accept any private hires from arms, fossil fuel or tobacco companies while it reviews its fundraising policies and commercial activities. Do we really need to wait for its findings? These sectors clearly fall outside our collective moral compass – all of our museums should resist funds of any kind from these sources.

In an attempted riposte to the artists who have threatened to remove their work, the Design Museum has called on those artists to think of the visitors’ experience – they would miss out on seeing their work in ‘Hope to Nope’. ‘The museum puts the visitor at the heart of everything it does,’ the museum said in its statement, ‘so we have urged exhibitors who have asked to have their work removed from display to reconsider their decision.’ But thinking about the interests of the visitor is precisely what the artists are doing. How is the visitor experience impacted by the presence or knowledge that the museum has shared space with an arms manufacturer which profits from conflicts across the world? How does that dissonance sit with an audience – does it tell them that an egregious practice is to be considered normal and acceptable?

The museum’s framing of the Leonardo reception as an unendorsed, private event fails to address the full picture. Why would Leonardo want to hold a party at the Design Museum? Because it bestows the museum’s social and cultural prestige upon the company. It’s an age-old public relations tactic of acquiring a veneer of social acceptability – and one that any ethical public institution would refuse to grant.

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Design Museum; photograph: Andy McArthur

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Design Museum; photograph: Andy McArthur

‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, London, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Design Museum; photograph: Andy McArthur

Now that the museum is reconsidering its policies, these will presumably be put to its board of trustees. And here’s where we stumble upon another issue. The chairman of the Design Museum’s trustees is none other than Lord Peter Mandelson, the former architect of New Labour, who has a concerning record when it comes to the defence industry. Mandelson once held a lucrative directorship at the Russian conglomerate Sistema (and is reported to still own shares), which is a majority shareholder in the defence technology firm RTI. It’s an obvious conflict of interest: Mandelson must step aside from all board-level discussions around due diligence and ethical fundraising.

The Design Museum faces a critical moment. Recently named European Museum of the Year 2018, the institution’s leadership simply has to step up and set an ethical standard for the sector. It’s down to directors Alice Black and Deyan Sudjic – who once wrote eloquently about the relationship between repressive regimes and the power of architects – to safeguard the museum’s moral responsibility. Programming an exhibition about protest, design and social change isn’t enough. It’s time to speak up.

Main image: ‘Hope to Nope’, Design Museum, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Gavin Grindon

Mel Evans is an artist and campaigner with Liberate Tate – an art collective that has organized unsanctioned live-art interventions in Tate galleries. She is the author of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (Pluto, 2015).

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