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Artwashing the University

By Ben Jacob

On 30 March 1880, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the doors of its new Central Park building. To inaugurate the venture before the gathered crowd of Gilded Age industrialists, the attorney Joseph Choate rose to speak on behalf of the Trustees. ‘Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets,’ he began, ‘what glory may yet be yours, if you only listen to our advice, to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery, the rude ores of commerce into sculptured marble.’

Choate’s lofty transubstantiation receives a cruder reiteration in Michael Bloomberg’s autobiography. ‘Having our names on a plaque, on a scholarship, on a research grant rewards us as long as we live,’ Bloomberg writes. ‘It puts everyone else – our community, our country, and even the whole world – in our debt.’ The promises to be attained by converting economic capital into cultural capital have seen successive generations transform New York’s cultural spaces into monuments to their benefactors. From the Lincoln Center’s Geffen Hall, renamed for business magnate David Geffen after he pledged $100 million, to the New York Public Library’s Stephen A Schwarzman Building, dedicated after the Blackstone CEO donated the same amount, the process of attaching personal reputation to cultural engagements has created both a steady source of income for these institutions, and a permanent queue of millionaires and billionaires waiting to see their names engraved in their entrance halls.

In March 2018, 138 years on from Choate’s oration, the Met was once again the frontline in negotiations over the relationship between cultural institutions and their donors. This time, those streaming into the building were not moneyed patrons but protestors calling for an end to the museum’s ties to the Sackler family. Purdue Pharma, the family’s American company, is the maker of OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription painkiller central to the opioid epidemic that has ravaged America. The company is being sued in the US by over 2,000 local authorities for its role in aggressively marketing the drug and downplaying its addictiveness. Alongside their business interests, the Sackler family are known in the cultural and academic world for decades of multi-million-pound donations, their name adorning buildings around the world, including Oxford’s Sackler Library.

As protesters gathered in the Met’s Sackler Wing, bearing banners with the slogans ‘Shame on Sackler’ and ‘Fund Rehab’, the celebrated photographer Nan Goldin announced to the crowd a series of demands calling for harm reduction and treatment of opioid addiction. Goldin, who found out about the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis while recovering from an OxyContin addiction, has spearheaded the fight against the family through her organization PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Since their first mobilisation at the Met, PAIN have taken their protests around the US and Europe, resulting in considerable success: in 2019, the Met, Guggenheim, Tate, National Gallery, Louvre, and American Museum of Natural History all took steps to distance themselves from the Sackler family, while Tufts University agreed to remove the Sackler name from its medical campus.

Joseph Choate and Michael Bloomberg’s words describe a phenomenon that has gathered a new formulation in the last few years: ‘artwashing’. Originally coined in reference to gentrification, the term has taken on new meaning amidst growing consciousness around the use of cultural engagement to whitewash exploitative or oppressive practices. PAIN and other groups fighting against ‘artwashing’ argue that cultural endowments allow donors to evade scrutiny and operate in the shadows. Prior to PAIN’s actions, the Sackler name was nearly entirely associated with philanthropy. Although Purdue Pharma faced investigations into their role in OxyContin’s abuse from as early as 2003, the Sackler family maintained a distance from the controversy for over a decade. Before 2019, there was not a single mention of the Sackler name on the Purdue Pharma website.

‘Artwashing’ is increasingly being used to describe the weaponisation of culture and appropriation of Indigenous art by the state, in Israel, Australia, and the US, among others. In the industry-centred context, ‘artwashing’ can take any number of additional forms, from personal donations with naming rights attached, to more fluid ‘partnerships’ between cultural institutions and companies, such as that between the British Museum and BP. As critics have pointed out, the oil company’s cultural sponsorship is deeply implicated in its wider activities, with every BP-sponsored exhibition at the British Museum over the past five years connected to a region where the company operates. This has seen accusations that the company is using cultural engagement to enhance its social license to operate in regions where it has a chequered past, or as an opportunity to meet policymakers and dignitaries and win drilling contracts.

Activists have responded by turning the gallery space into a political arena. Following PAIN’s success, the art activist group Decolonize This Place focused their direct action on the Whitney Museum in New York, calling for the resignation of Warren Kanders. Kanders, vice-chairman of Whitney’s board, is the CEO of weapons manufacturer Safariland, whose tear gas canisters have been used at the Mexico-United States border, against Palestinians in Gaza, and against protestors at Standing Rock and Ferguson. After an open letter from Whitney staff and a petition calling for Kanders’ resignation were ignored, Decolonize This Place led a series of nine weekly demonstrations at the museum. The message was clear: the museum is a contested political space.

In July 2019, Kanders resigned from the Whitney board. The same month, Ahdaf Soueif stepped down from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees over its relations with BP. In a statement in the London Review of Books explaining her resignation, the Egyptian novelist expanded on a view of the museum as a public institution with public responsibilities extending beyond its galleries. ‘Any story the museum chooses to tell must finally be judged in context,’ Soueif wrote, ‘that is, in relation to how it behaves – where it gets its money, how it treats its workers, and who it considers partners’. In response, the museum’s Chair of Trustees Richard Lambert stressed a single context in which the museum should be judged: curating exhibitions. BP’s sponsorship ‘made it possible for [the British Museum] to put on exhibitions which 4 million people have seen,’ something that the museum simply ‘couldn’t have done without that support’. In the ensuing debates, detractors suggested that ‘artwashing’ critics are engaged in acts of ‘cultural vandalism’ against institutions that are themselves ‘priceless artefacts’.

These arguments follow an established tradition of depicting culture as something abstracted from the world in which we live. In this formulation, ‘culture’ and ‘art’ are discrete categories that serve inherent human needs through their aesthetic power. The experience of art is direct and primal, unmediated by the material structures that exist outside of the exhibition hall. Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum, returned to these forms in the programme for the post-Kanders Whitney Biennial, describing the Biennial’s curators as ‘in search of authenticity, an unadulterated but not uncomplicated heartbeat of artmaking at this moment’. These definitions of art and culture are relatively modern innovations, coming into popular usage in the 19th century, and are intimately connected to the growth of the cultural institutions that are today accused of ‘artwashing’. If culture is about simply acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and depicted in the world, then these institutions ought to serve primarily as sites for making that acquaintance; they have a nearly unbounded right to solicit funding in order to present artefacts relevant to that pursuit to the public. Art, as institutionally defined, becomes ‘a way to avoid engaging with the world shared by others,’ as historian Ariella Azoulay has written. Where critics of ‘artwashing’ presuppose galleries and museums as possessing wider social obligations, the very definitions of culture and art extended by their opponents deny those obligations.

Higher education, like cultural institutions, is undergoing a change in its financial structures. With government funding in decline, universities are turning to donations and grants from private bodies and individual donors to secure their finances. Pursued without caution, this shift in fundraising has led to a number of dubious alliances between prestigious universities and controversial bodies and individuals. At Oxford, such alliances are written into the names of the various buildings and institutes that have sprung up in recent decades. The Saïd Business School, reopened in 2001 after a £28 million donation from Wafic Saïd, commemorates a man primarily known for his role in the controversial Al-Yamamah arms deal that oversees British arms exports to Saudi Arabia to this day. In 2015, the opening of the Blavatnik School of Government attracted an open letter from lecturers, graduates and human rights activists complaining that Oxford was ‘selling its reputation to Putin’s associates’ by honouring the centre’s £75 million donor, Len Blavatnik. Just up Walton Road from the Blavatnik School lies an abandoned plot earmarked for the construction of the £150 million ‘Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities,’ to be funded by Stephen Schwarzman, CEO and founder of the private equity firm Blackstone. Announced in June 2019, this donation has raised rancour amongst academics, students, councillors and community groups, who drew attention to Schwarzman’s links to the Trump administration and Blackstone’s exploitative business practices in an open letter in September. In the months since, opposition has escalated through the formation of the ‘Oxford Against Schwarzman’ campaign, with the Oxford Student Union and the Oxford branch of the University and College Union (UCU) calling for an enquiry into the ethical review process for the donation.

In its defence, the university has followed a similar argument to those in the art world, stressing that its public responsibilities should be judged in relation to a single context: its teaching and research. While researching Oxford’s funding, these arguments were repeated to me by university officials. When I requested information about the university’s ethical review into Schwarzman’s donation, I was told that ‘the public interest in disclosure is heavily outweighed by the public interest in maintaining the University’s ability to obtain public funding’. The information commissioner went on to argue that, ‘the University’s high standards of teaching and research are valuable and important in their own right. The maintenance of these standards would be jeopardised if the University was less able to attract private funds, and this would not be in the public interest’. This understanding of ‘public interest’ carries with it an implication that the ethics of University practices are secondary to the completion of its academic priorities. Or, as Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson explained when discussing the Schwarzman donation, ‘the red line is our academic autonomy’.

The suitability of such ‘red lines’ in dealing with major donations was dealt a severe blow last year, when it emerged that MIT Media Lab took donations from the financier and paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. As reported at the time, ‘Epstein used the status and prestige afforded him by his relationships with elite institutions to shield himself from accountability’. Investigations by the New Yorker subsequently revealed the extent of MIT’s complicity, with the Media Lab’s director, Joi Ito taking measures to ensure that Epstein’s donations did not come to light in order to avoid accountability and transparency.

Like that of Oxford’s administrators, Ito’s justification was framed around the purported pressures of working in a ‘challenging funding environment’. As Harvard professor Larry Lessig argued in a defence of Ito, ‘I thank god that I’ve never been obligated to raise money for an institution like MIT, because in every moment of that existence, I would be forced to confront a gap between what I believe is right and what every institution does’. Despite such assertions, there are clear limits to the argument that Ito and other fundraisers are merely doing what they have been forced to do by a difficult funding environment. If transparency and due diligence are seen as obstacles to securing funds, questions must be asked as to where the priorities of higher education institutions lie. In Oxford, the construction of reputation-enhancing, highly visible buildings with multi-million pound donations is undertaken while 75% of all academic staff remain on insecure contracts, and the University and its colleges refuse to pay the Oxford living wage.

Oxford possesses clear guidelines about the acceptance of grants and donations. The University advises academics that funding is ‘only requested or accepted’ if ‘it will not result in the University […] acting illegally, improperly or unethically,’ particularly where funding is ‘believed to be a result of criminal activity’ or ‘otherwise originates from or is associated with unethical activity’. However, these regulations are routinely sidestepped. In the case of the Schwarzman donation, the deliberations of the Committee to Review Donations, which congregation members have described as a ‘smokescreen’ and a ‘fig leaf,’ are subject to non-disclosure agreements. Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Oxford Against Schwarzman campaign have recently revealed that the Committee, which meets to consider particular grants and donations that ‘raise issues of a reputational, ethical or similar nature,’ accepts over 95% of the funding that it considers. The result is that, in direct contravention of university guidelines, Oxford regularly accepts grants and donations from companies involved in criminal activity, including Schlumberger (violating trade sanctions), BAE, Rolls Royce, Thales (all for bribery or corruption), BP (for crimes relating to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) and Shell (corruption). Membership of the Committee to Review Donations itself includes Tim Faithfull, an Oxford alumnus with a long career as an oil executive at Shell and Canada Natural Resources, where he is currently a board member.

However, to mention these examples alone is to obscure their connections to Oxford’s past. Oxford has a long tradition of support from private benefactors, of which the college system is itself a corollary, with the Sheldonian Theatre, Bodleian Libraries and countless other university buildings paying tribute to their wealthy benefactors. The result is that, centuries before the term ‘artwashing’ was conceived, Oxford has been a conduit for individuals of great wealth but insecure status to burnish their reputations and gain access to power.

In 1680, the 12-year-old Christopher Codrington was sent from his home in Barbados to England for an education. The product of three generations of slave owners, the young Codrington arrived at a time when the world of slavery was viewed as a disease-ridden ‘climactic’ corruption in the eyes of the metropolitan elite. The English landed gentry feared colonial barons, who were often caricatured in popular representations as illegitimate and ill-mannered. Matriculating at Christ Church in 1685, Codrington worked diligently in the metropole to refashion his identity within the culture of taste. This persona was crafted from the proceeds of slavery, with income from the Codrington plantation used to cultivate the friendship of poets, painters and philosophers through patronage. When Codrington died in 1710, he left £10,000 to All Souls College for the construction of what became the Codrington Library. At the heart of the library, a statue stands of Sir Christopher Codrington replete in the trappings of a Roman senator, the cultivated public image of a slave owner mediated through the idiom of classicism and taste. As Simon Gikandi writes, Codrington was part of a planter class which ‘used art and culture to launder its dirty wealth,’ and the natural site for this cleansing was Oxford.

Codrington is not alone. As Oxford developed into both the receptacle and inculcator of ideas of taste and civility, those tarnished by ‘impure’ associations with the imperial peripheries sought out the University to banish such insecurities. In the same manner, colonial administrators were driven through its colleges, to whom they returned the service with donations. While Cecil Rhodes has, rightly, dominated headlines about Oxford’s tarnished associations with the worst of Britain’s imperial past, a steady stream of lesser known colonial figures has secured Oxford’s finances for centuries. Take Milner Hall in Rhodes House, named for Lord Alfred Milner. Milner was one of the pioneers of the southern African concentration camps as British War Secretary, a reality that has led to a campaign by the activist group Rhodes Scholars for Palestine to demand the renaming of the hall.

Just as assessments of Oxford’s present funding cannot ignore this past, facing Oxford’s past demands attention to the present. There is no clear break in institutional practices between donations from Schwarzman and Rhodes, just as there was no break between Rhodes and Codrington. While moves such as Cambridge University’s inquiry ‘into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period’ are welcome, most attempts by universities to ‘grapple with’ their colonial pasts are marked by a myopic evasion of the present.

Is it enough, in the words of one social enterprise in Oxford, to acknowledge this past as ‘uncomfortable’? ‘Discomfort’, after all, is something felt by the perpetrator, closely related to guilt. ‘Stimulating’ walking tours exploring these feelings are not an act of redress, since their object is firmly reflection in the present on the past trauma of others. Such an object does not reach out to the victims of the ‘uncomfortable’ act, past or present, who remain instead sealed beneath the violent acts to which they were condemned in life. The cloak of an ‘uncomfortable’ past denies the very real connections between Oxford University’s past and its present and their meanings. Until the continuity between Rhodes, Codrington, and Milner, and Saïd, Sackler, and Schwarzman is recognised, the process of disentangling the University’s complicity in historic and ongoing structural oppression and exploitation seems destined to remain suspended.

So far, the university has shown little willingness to engage with critics of its donor practices. Rhodes Must Fall Oxford nearly brought Oriel College to the negotiating table regarding Cecil Rhodes’ statue’s future, before wealthy alumni threatened to withdraw their bequeathments from the college. Divestment campaigns are achieving success college by college, but the largest colleges remain defiant. In this deeply change-resistant environment, reflection alone holds seemingly little capacity to challenge a university deeply implicated in the fossil fuel industry, the arms trade and the local housing crisis, yet whose stated goal remains to ‘benefit society on a local, regional, national and global scale’.

At the first of their nine weekly protests at the Whitney Museum, Decolonize This Place heard a message from PAIN: ‘direct action works’. Contemporary activist movements in the arts and higher education have refused to silence the subjects of violence beneath the ‘benefaction’ of its perpetrators. Using direct action to politicise shared spaces, they have resisted attempts to abstract culture and education away from their real-world implications. The responsibility is now on Oxford’s stakeholders, from its students and academics, to community members, alumni and associated figures, to demand change from the University; only with an adequate understanding of Oxford’s historic role wedded to a commitment to direct action in the present can the ongoing harms wrought by this institution begin to be redressed. In January 2020, activists occupied the front quad of St John’s College, calling for divestment from fossil fuels and signalling a crucial escalation in the collective struggles. What’s next?

BEN JACOB reads History and English at Pembroke College. He wishes his friends would stop calling him ‘Dirty Money’ Jacob.

Art by Abigail Hodges


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