Against the will of the work? The ethics of classical music sponsorship

Doctoral composer, musicologist, and activist in human rights and environmental issues, Chris Garrard, argues for a socially conscious music sponsorship, specifically in relation to the ‘Shell Classic International’ concert series at the London South Bank Centre. 

The development of musical composition and practice in the Western classical tradition has been, to a large extent, shaped by the flow of external funding. Financial support has been manifested in a number of contrasting forms, from patronage to sponsorship, and grants to long-term contracts. For those that subscribe to the view that music is a form of common good, the distinction between private and public sources may be marginalised if the overarching outcome is understood to enhance the richness of cultural activity. In the current economic climate, a funding decision can dictate the survival of a given arts organisation as opposed to just the quality of its output.

The debate concerning the extent to which the arts should be publicly funded is understood to be inherently political. Policies concerning public funding of the arts are scrutinised on ethical and political grounds because a reduction can be perceived as a direct affront. Due to the scarcity of public funding though, the political and ethical aspects of private contributions may not always be scrutinised to the same extent. However, private funding is capable of forming a more veiled affront to the arts.

Many private companies have been long-term supporters of the arts and this is, in most cases, categorised as philanthropy. Assessment of the underlying motivation for private donations needs to happen though in order to assess whether a form of corporate brand management is actually occurring. A company wishing to enhance its brand identity can appropriate the prestige of the arts sector through considered, strategic sponsorship. Those corporations that require a form of ‘social licence’ in order to operate, a legitimacy derived from the public belief that they are responsible in their activities, are alert to the arts sector’s ability to help synthesise this perception. By extension, if an arts institution decides to accept a private donation they are, to some extent, tacitly condoning the values of that donor. The transaction does not exist in an ethical vacuum.

It can be argued that this form of financial support is perhaps a contemporary equivalent of Haydn’s long-term employment by the Esterházy family. However, shifts in social values since Haydn’s era have meant that today we are better equipped to be more discerning when considering the ethical dimensions of financial contributions. Currently, the Southbank Centre receives funding from both private and public sources. One of those private sources though is Royal Dutch Shell, who sustain the ‘Shell Classic International’ concert series which features performances by some of the most high-profile ensembles and artists in classical music today. Evidence of Shell’s encroachment upon environmental and social justice is widely recorded and as such, their need to acquire a social licence in order to operate is a high priority. At one level, Shell’s sponsorship is appropriating the aura and prestige of classical music to their name. Also, many of the works programmed in the concert series sophisticatedly examine and often assert the values of social justice. By allowing Shell to undertake this kind of sponsorship arrangement, are we permitting the most powerfully outspoken works to be available for the furthering of contradictory values? Can a corporation such as Shell fund military groups in Nigeria by millions of dollars and also the performance of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, without neutralising its intrinsic ‘plea for peace’? How might the musicologists of the future recast the ontologies of these poignant works in light of paradoxical performances?

‘Recommend virtue to your children; that, alone can bring happiness; not wealth, — I speak from experience.’

Ludwig van Beethoven

In a letter to his brothers Karl and Johann, dated October 6, 1802

If you wish to find out more about Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre or wish to add your name to an open letter to Alan Bishop, the Chief Executive, please visit:


  1. Thank you for raising the issue, Chris. I’ve enjoyed reading the post very much and thought this is an especially thorny issue to be discussed under the current political and economic climate, when we’re told that money is scarce and when black and white ideologies aren’t accepted as easily in our post-modern era. Together with oil giant Shell, there have also been the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates, with charity going out of one hand and the other taking a mammoth sum of material wealth (among other things). Good, old Zizek would say: “This paradox signals a sad predicament of ours: today’s capitalism cannot reproduce itself on its own. It needs extra-economic charity to sustain the cycle of social reproduction.” And thus abstract, symbolic violence is done, and without most people questioning.

    A couple of days after your piece was first posted, I came across a photo of Oskar Kokoshka painting the London Thames view from the Shell Max House, directly opposite the South Bank Centre, and I shuddered — has Shell’s legacy been so long? I had no idea. I’m not sure how the work came about, but I almost wished I didn’t know.

  2. It is indeed a thorny issue. At a conceptual level, any form of sponsorship by companies not directly involved in the artform may seem compromising, with the legitimisation of commercial principles implied by sponsorship.

    Would sponsorship by less controversial companies still seem problematic simply because they link commerce to art? Might there be some reciprocal pressure from a music festival upon the companies supporting it, exposing them to examination which might instigate more ethical trading principles?

    Most music practitioners operate at a more pragmatic level, with commercial support welcomed if it does not compromise content too much [some of Shell’s dealings are particularly controversial with regard to ethical trading]. Perhaps the only solution to funding needs in today’s climate is for music festivals to seek sponsorship from the least objectionable firms – ethical investment funds, for example – and to adopt an explicit ethical policy which can be used to exert pressure on sponsors.

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