Painting with Oil

Painting with Oil

Human Cost, 2011. Photo by Amy Scaife, courtesy of Liberate Tate.

Oil magnate David Koch stepped down from the board of the American Museum of Natural History on December 9, 2015. His departure came only months after dozens of scientists signed a letter calling on the science museum sector to sever ties with the fossil fuel industry. Koch, who governs the sprawling Koch Industries alongside his brother Charles, had sat on the board for twenty-three years, and continues to maintain similar arrangements at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Over the years Koch has donated millions of dollars to these museums. Many argue that this has allowed Koch to influence their public programming while boosting the reputation of Koch Industries. His departure from the museum’s board could signal that Big Oil’s efforts to sanitize its public image in the glamorous hallways of cultural institutions around the globe are finally beginning to wear thin.

Criticism of David Koch’s influence over science museums and art galleries began well before the 2015 letter. In 2014 activists from Occupy Museums, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street that focuses on the arts, staged a protest outside the Met. The museum had just announced that the fountains decorating its outside entrance would be renamed the David H. Koch Plaza, to thank the billionaire for funding the project with a $65 million donation. A protester-performer ritualistically cleansed herself with water from the fountain, echoing the perceived intentions behind Koch’s sponsorship. Like many before him, Koch no doubt hoped his donation would wash away some of the sins of his family’s dirty-energy empire.

The Koch name has been associated with corporate corruption since a Greenpeace report published in 2010 revealed the Kochs were giving large amounts of funding to climate denialists fighting environmental legislation in the United States. As Jane Mayer pointed out in the New Yorker at the time, the Koch brothers outdid even ExxonMobil, now the notorious standard-bearer in climate science obfuscation, by funding a whole network of front groups and think tanks. The strategy is the same one used by the tobacco industry to fight national and international policies that threatened their profits. And, like the tobacco industry, the oil industry has paired funding to undermine science with cultural sponsorship designed to gloss over its deteriorating public image. While Charles Koch meets with political advisors and aggressively pushes a libertarian political agenda, his brother David trots between art openings and board meetings to secure positive PR for the company.

In the United States, the oil industry’s use of sponsorship is as old as the business itself. In Texas, Big Oil has always portrayed itself as attempting to give back a little bit of the great sum it extracts. Initially money was spent to diminish the power of labor. The Rockefeller family, owners...