Last week the much-tweeted Trafigura affair collided with the world of art – with ungainly results. It’s not just Trafigura and Carter Ruck’s reputation that have taken a pasting over the last few days on Twitter.
On Friday, Twitterers claimed victory in a freedom of speech issue surrounding the oil trading company Trafigura. At the heart was a report, commissioned by Trafigura themselves into thedumping of slops in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, which Trafigura did not want the public to see. The toxic chemicals are alleged to have caused the deah of up to 18 people and injury to at least 30,0oo more.
When the existence of the report was raised under the privilege of a parliamentary question, the solicitors Carter-Ruck effectively imposed an injunction on The Guardian reporting what was now parliamentary business. At which point the Twitterverse scented a rat and began publicising not only the injunction and its history, but disclosing the full contents of the damning report. Bingo. The company’s efforts to keep the report quiet resulted in it being transmitted around the world to millions of internet users. The result was that a whole swathe of those who had been perhaps a little sceptical about the use of Twitter became converts.
While old media were impotent in the face of the injunction, new media simply swept all this aside. Hurrah for new media.
Well, not quite. It was a little more complicated than that. The Guardian had very cleverly dropped a hint of the injunction on its front page knowing that the unfettered world of new media was likely to pick up and run with it. For all its self-congratulation, it’s not likely that the Twitterverse would have picked up the story on their own. What it should be seen as is an exemplary act of collaboration between old and new.
Anyway, to THE ART BIT.
During Tuesday’s Twitterstorm, an artist called Ivan Pope was amongst those who, googling for stick-like facts to beat Trafigura with, noticed that the company were sponsoring The Trafigura Art art prize as part of the Young Masters exhibition.
As an artist he was quite reasonably shocked to see an arts event associated with a company who were the subject of a damning UN report into the dumping incident. As Pope and others spread news of the prize, the Cynthia Corbett Gallery and exhibition curator Constance Slaughter became the target of the widespread rage against Trafigura. Pope blogged:
OK, so bringing Trafigura and artists together seemed like a good idea.
Except that it is damaging to the artists, the judges, the gallery and the art world generally.
But it is great news for Trafigura, who paid £4,000 for the privilege.
Yes, that’s right. It cost them £4,000 to attach their name to an art world prize.
The prize is run by suckers who think Trafigura are really ‘the good guys’, and that it’s all media lies.
Yes, the organisers of the prize are giving out great PR for Trafigura. If you know how much Pottinger-Bell type PR costs, you’ll see the value in this prize to them.
On Friday, after four days flak, the Cynthia Corbett Gallery finally announced that they were withdrawing the Trafigura Prize.
OK. Kudos should be given to anyone seeking sponsorship for artists. But.
Sponsorship, as Pope points out, is an exchange. It’s bizarre that no one from the gallery, nor any the judges who had agreed to take part in the prize, nor or any of the artists in the Young Masters exhibition, had bothered to consider whether it was a Good Idea to be involved with Trafigura until Tuesday’s Twitterstorm.
Though some, like the artist Tom Hunter who was one of the prize’s intended judges, publicly disassociated themselves from the prize following the ruckus, it took until Friday for the gallery itself to pull out. That leaves the impression that they only did so when the PR negatives of the association outweighed the positives, not because of any concern with the wider issues.
As public funding decreases in coming years, sponsorship is going to become increasingly central to the long-term health of the arts. But any sponsorship is an act of partnership – a joining of reputations.
There’s no excuse for not knowing about the controversy surrounding Trafigura. Despite the injunctions, the allegations have been in the public domain since 2006. The Ivory Coast dumping was the subject of a major Newsnight investigation in May this year.
Talk about reputation management. This sort of thing leaves the arts looking unengaged, aloof and frankly a bit dim.
Photo of flash mob protest outside the Carter Ruck offices by lewishamdreamer.
Go to RSA Arts & Ecology