BAE Systems have pulled out of the sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North (GEN) after intense organised campaigning against the art washing of the event by artists, activists and Art Not Arms.
It’s a fantastic result: within just over a week campaigners and participants had joined forces on social media to get BAE systems dropped. Arms sales by BAE to Saudi Arabia (a country with a human rights reputation challenged by Amnesty International and involved in the war in Yemen) were cited as the predominant motives for artists withdrawing their support.
The complete list of sponsors came to light during the launch event of GEN on 27th February 2018. Within a week ArtNotArms had been set up. By Wednesday 7th March, after intense discussions with the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), BAE Systems & GEN, both organisations released a statement on their websites. The timing coincides with Saudi Royal Prince Salman’s visit to the UK, who has recently been lauded in the British press for so-called ‘progressive’ policies. Emily Porter, AUE Trustee said “the Saudi government cite women being able to drive as a progressive reform, shame on them! My mother was driving in Iraq in 1932!”
The victory of BAE Systems’ withdrawal is an amazing example of how collective action can bring about change. Artists spoke publicly giving their reasons for pulling out of the event; this in turn empowered others to take a stand. The threat of more artists pulling out was enough for the DCMS U-turn. This campaign is the nearest artists have come in recent years to an Art Strike & Boycott. It is a clear example of how music, performance and visual arts have a natural connection in forming a united front. If this success can be achieved by working together in the North East, imagine what we could achieve nationally!
Not everybody saw the action as positive, Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale & Darwen and Minister for The Northern Powerhouse labelled artists as “subsidy addicted”. What is clear from such a statement is the government’s complete misunderstanding of the livelihoods of artists. Art Not Arms are continuing their campaign to hold DCMS and ACE to account asking for public disclosure of the process behind the selection of BAE Systems as a premier partner. Follow the campaign @artnotarms