England’s Great Exhibition Loses Arms Industry Sponsor After Artists Protest

The festival includes "homecoming" shows for Glenn Brown and Michael Dean in Newcastle and Gateshead galleries that are partners in the government-backed event.

Amnesty International activists march with homemade replica missiles bearing the message 'Made in Britain, destroying lives in Yemen' across Westminster Bridge towards Downing Street during a protest over UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia on March 18, 2016 in London, England. Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

A high-profile cultural festival backed by the UK Government called “The Great Exhibition of the North” is seeking a new lead sponsor after the arms and aerospace company BAE Systems pulled out. The move announced today, March 8, came amid protests that began as soon as the deal was announced earlier this month. A petition led by a “coalition of artists and cultural workers” denounced the company for “profiteering from the deaths of innocent children” in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition against Iranian-backed rebels in the country, is among the company’s customers. 

On Friday, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, which is a key partner in the festival, distanced itself from the controversial sponsorship deal. Today it issued a brief statement that it “respected the decision,” echoing the position of the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, which is the overall organizer of the event due to begin on June 22 (until September 9).

The Baltic is due to present the Turner-prize nominee artist Michael Dean’s first solo show in his home city as part of the festival. Dean, who was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1977, has already had solo shows at the South London Gallery and his first US museum solo show was at the Nasher Sculpture Center in 2016-17. Other artists showing at the Baltic during the 11-week festival include Turner prize winning artist Lubaina Himid, Ryan Gander, Jane and Louise Wilson, and Tim Etchells.

The Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle is presenting another “homecoming” exhibition of a high-profile artist with local roots. Glenn Brown was born in Hexham in 1966. He is due to show new works hung alongside works in the Laing’s collection. A spokeswoman for the Laing said that Brown’s show “is only being promoted by the Great Exhibition of the North as it is a significant free exhibition taking place in Newcastle during [the summer].”

The distinction left some unconvinced, including the Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle who tweeted after the Baltic and Sage issued their initial statement “but the arms manufacturer is still involved in the larger project…” Searle responded “Yes!” when the campaign group Art Not Arms tweeted that BAE Systems had pulled out as lead sponsor of festival. It is unclear whether artists who announced they were boycotting the event will now be invited to take part. They include the ceramic artist Emily Hesse, who was due to show in Newcastle’s Hancock Museum.

“The Great North Exhibition” is receiving around £5 million ($6.9 million) from the UK government. Other funders include Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund.

The defense company, which is a major employer in the region said in a statement: “While BAE Systems remains supportive of the aims of the Great Exhibition we have decided to redirect our support to other initiatives better suited to both our skills and innovation objectives and in support of the industrial strategy of the North of England.”  

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