29/01/21 • ◠ Focus: Art and Oil : Marie Stokkenes Johansen

The Bond between Art and the Oil Industry

29/01/21 • ◠ Focus: Art and Oil : Marie Stokkenes Johansen

The Bond between Art and the Oil Industry

The art world and the oil industry share an intertwined and often tense co-existence, bonded further by capital.  In the below text, Marie Stokkenes Johansen explores the various threads of this entanglement, and pursues different perspectives on how the two markets affect one another, and perhaps even benefit each other. 


The art world and the oil industry share an entangled and complex relationship. It is primarily financially based and thus it sparks a multitude of discussions and controversies. In Norway the art world depends to a large degree on governmental support, which receives much of its income from the oil industry. Internationally, several institutions are founded and supported by a person or company within the oil industry. The oil industry is the largest economic driver in Norway and is especially prominent in Stavanger, our “oil capital”. This text will examine specific areas of connection between the oil industry and the arts, and discuss critical aspects of each. First, I will review the status of the art market in Stavanger and how this relates to the oil industry. From there I will go on to discuss how this influences our position and opportunities in a global art context. Several critical stances on oil industry funding for the arts will be reviewed, before a suggestion for an economic alternative. This text is not intended to advocate a separation of the arts from oil industry sponsorship, but rather to investigate the reality of the situation and to reflect on various perspectives.


A short disclaimer

To start off this review, I would like to address the idea of characteristically “Stavanger” art or “Norwegian” art and how a topic, such as the oil industry may be reflected in local art. As the most prominent industry in this area, the oil business supposedly manifests itself in all parts of our society – not least our culture and the arts. It feels simplistic, however, to assume that because this region is dominated by the oil industry, it should consequently be directly reflected in art as a theme. Rather, I would argue that it contributes to a rich variety of societal and cultural features that inform artistic sensibility. For comparison, we may look at contemporary Iranian art as an example of a nation also very dependent on the oil trade. As in Norwegian art, it would be a stretch to characterize Iranian art as thematically influenced by oil. 1 There are, of course, examples of oil being a source of inspiration behind artworks, but perhaps this topic belongs more in the discussion on the “Nordic-ness” and the idea of a constructed identity of art in Scandinavia and would make for another interesting field of examination. 2

  1. Ekhtiar and Sardar, 2004
  1. Lloyd, 1998

Art and oil in a local market

In terms of art and oil in a local context, the regional art market offers some interesting insight. Many individuals relocate to this region from other parts of Norway and the world to be part of the oil industry, and are likely making more money due to the oil industry than they would otherwise, as proven by the median income at Statistisk Sentral Byrå (Public Statistic Bureau of Norway). The average demographic is wealthy with a higher level of education, but the art market is strangely underdeveloped. With an average income much higher than the rest of the country, a lot of people in Stavanger could afford to pay for artworks by developing or somewhat more established artists (<100 000 – 200 000NOK). Higher average income suggests a strong market potential for art in this region. The question is, why has it not developed beyond a store-like, primary market?

In more developed markets, the gallerist works similarly to an agent for the artist, diligently working with their artistic output and finding the right collectors for their art. A professional gallerist is known for their eye and connoisseurship, which makes them a reliable and attractive dealer to buyers. To build a market for a new artist is time-consuming work based on dedication and true belief in that artist. Consequently, it would not be realistic for a professional gallerist to have a very high number of artists in their portfolio. In Stavanger several gallerists work in a very different way, rather promoting a very high number of artists and advertising a large selection as a selling point to buyers. A notable exception here was Arve Opdahl, a former gallerist with comparable work standards as top market dealers. In order to examine the stagnation of the local commercial market, we must further examine other aspects of the relationship between art and oil. More specifically we must look at the affiliation between the oil industry and the local art institutions.

Art institutions and the Oil Industry: two important features to consider

The art market in Stavanger, as elsewhere, is largely dominated by institutions, and these institutions play a powerful role in the commercial market. Publicly funded cultural institutions make up much of the power-structure of the art world and indirectly influence the commercial market. In most developed art markets, the institutions have a solid counterpart in the private collector and professional gallery sectors. The business aspect of the art market – the possibility for a gallerist to find and accumulate new talent and to create business for them both, and for the collector to hunt for additions to their collection – contributes to a richer art milieu with their diverse backgrounds and intentions of entering the art world. The flatness of the art market in Stavanger today can most likely be attributed to the homogenous environment of the art world here as well as the social democratic political landscape of Norway.

By no means is this homogeneity illustrative of the artists themselves, who represent a vast array of backgrounds, nationalities and education. But the people who work at the local art institutions form a fairly homogenous group. The art world today is extremely international and the main global capitals of art are in constant dialogue, becoming more and more based on using the same technologies (IT programs, information sharing and so on). An institution that finds itself not willing to participate in international standards, will quickly fall behind and consequentially be left out of potential collaborations with other institutions. Oil money (through government support) does create a buffer here, allowing for some expensive projects that other institutions, perhaps more qualified, but with less funding could not take part in. A consequence of not paying enough attention to such standards, is that the local art market experiences a fairly low ceiling: The potential for showcasing local talent to international institutions and consequently gallerists and collectors, would be limited. A local artist by him or herself will likely find it extremely difficult to be “discovered” by an established gallerist in a major cultural city. Due to this, local artists may find themselves more confined to regional or national markets. For the local art buyer, this is both good and bad news: On one side, it is possible to buy great art from highly talented artists based in this area at “low” prices. The quality of much of the art here could possibly fetch much higher prices if the artist was based in a more developed city. On the other hand, with great artists faced with a low market ceiling, the buyer should not enter the local art market with the intentions of making a good investment in terms of a secondary market (as it hardly exists – there are very few established channels to provide for such a market). This does perhaps to a certain extent explain why some of the “realist” oil industry workers are reluctant to enter the art market, as it is hard to tell if an art purchase in Stavanger is a sound investment.

Another element of the relationship between the oil industry and art institutions is sponsorship. This is perhaps a more prominent feature in art world capitals such as London and New York, but it is worth mentioning here as it affects the dynamics between oil and art in an international context. According to Platform London, Oil companies such as BP and Shell have sponsored almost all of London’s cultural institutions over the last decade. The companies do this because they need to care for their social profile. This, however, is met with resistance by some artists, activists and groups such as Culture Unstained, BP or Not BP?, Art Not Oil, and (previously) Liberate Tate. Platform London states: “In 2016, after six years of sustained coalition campaigning and art activism, including Platform who successfully took Tate to the Information Tribunal for refusing to disclose its funding history with BP, Tate announced it was dropping its funding with BP.” This demonstrates a complex relationship between two industries. Institutions need the money as they can rarely rely on entry fees alone.

Yet in Stavanger the two are perhaps even harder to separate as they are both so intricately bound through state taxes and funding. Equinor exemplifies this as a partially state-owned oil company with strong local roots (having their main office in Stavanger) and with their own art programme. Amongst other initiatives they purchase local art for their collection. Being one of the largest employers of the region and paying substantial taxes, the company’s existence is part of the basis for economic prosperity in the region. In other words, without it there would likely be significantly less financial support for cultural practices and perhaps even less of a market. This makes for a complex position for the art world as to critically review its funding. Reluctance to accept its reliance on the oil industry, is a common stance amongst artists and other art world professionals. Unnuanced opinions and harsh rhetoric however, offer little insight and hardly contributes to the ongoing discussion. To simply state that one is against oil industry funding, is saying very little. To truly take such a statement for its literal meaning would be a nihilist standpoint for an art world professional in Stavanger.

Locally-based oil companies and their art programs:

Equinor stands out among locally based oil companies for their art programme. According to The International Association of Corporate Collections of Contemporary Art, the collection was launched in 1990 and contains 1300 works of art. Artists such as Azar Alsharif, Olafur Eliasson, Elmgreen & Dragset, Jone Kvie, Jim Lambie, Camilla Løw, Lars Ramberg, Pipilotti Rist and Christine Ödlund are included in the corporate collection. Elin Melberg is an example of a local artist with a site-specific commission for Equinor. According to the website, the collection is not open to the public and have no scheduled events. In collaboration with the Munch Museum, Equinor launched the biennial Edvard Munch Art Award in 2015 (replacing the Statoil Art Award). The Equinor Art Collection is the only Norwegian corporate collection listed on IACCA’s website. The exact works of art included in the collection is not accessible on Equinor’s nor on IACCA’s website at the time of this research (December 2020).

On the importance of a great collection:

High quality collections play an important role in the art world. Important collections, with famous examples such as the Medici collection or more contemporary ones like Agnes Gunn’s collection, greatly informs how history is remembered and how art history is taught. It also has an important effect on the art market. Inclusion in a significant collection can open up for vast array of possibilities for the market of that artist. Professional galleries will often have specific goals for their artists in terms of inclusion in particular contemporary collections, as that is known to influence other buyers. In the art world the creators of such collections are often referred to as “tastemakers”. In 2021 language, we can easily compare this term to an “influencer” of the art world. The owners of these collections are often discrete and this makes their opinions and tastes more attractive for others to follow. Therefore, collections make up an important, albeit complex role in the art world. The collections of the oil industry companies would not have the same incentive for discretion as a private collector as such a class culture feels foreign in a Norwegian context. This could potentially be a great opportunity for such collections to be public and garner more attention to their acquisitions. They could potentially take on the modern role of a “tastemaker” or “art influencer” with more ease. Oil industry corporate collections, such as Equinor’s, could potentially profile themselves as more “down to earth” and accessible with a modern feel. With such great examples of contemporary artists, the collection as a whole would be fantastic to review. Not just for its artistic value, but also for its potential as a contributor to the Norwegian art landscape.


Institutions and the idea of “dirty” oil money:

The idea of institutions being sponsored by “dirty oil money”, is hardly a new notion. Many of the world’s most famous institutions were indeed founded by oil tycoons or heiresses. A notable example is The Getty in Los Angeles, US, which was founded by the oil tycoon and art collector J. Paul Getty in 1974. In 1982 it inherited $1.2 billion US dollars and subsequently became the richest institution in the world. 3 This has allowed this institution to not only buy more artworks, but has also provided extra measurements in terms of taking care for their collection. Fires in California have destroyed much of the area where the Getty stands, but the collection remained unharmed. 4 In her2019 article The Art of Oil, Kate Yoder examines the effects of art institutions relying on the oil industry. “The Getty can afford these protections because it’s one of the richest museums in the world — and that’s all thanks to oil money. The Getty Trust, which he founded in 1953, is worth more than $10 billion,” according to Yoder.

  1. McGill, 1987
  1. Hay, 2019

There is an ethical issue with oil companies as polluters that gain social goodwill through funding the arts. An example is ExxonMobil, which Yoder argues is both one of the world’s most charitable companies in terms of donations and also the fourth biggest polluter. In order to shed further light on the scope of this issue, a database for corporate donations to cultural institutions would be beneficial, as it would be very informative on this subject, Yoder explains. Further, she discus how oil industry funding is under increased scrutiny and critique, as a growing number of artists and activists demands the institutions take on a more educational role in terms of climate change and should end funding from so-called “dirty money.” Activists want museums to look beyond their own walls and use their resources to educate the public about the climate crisis. The thinking is that museums could play a more meaningful role in imagining a future free from fossil fuels … if they weren’t dependent on money made from the exploration, refining, and distribution of them,” Yoder states.

Financial support for arts and culture has always been linked to rich families and rich companies. Yoder explains:,“It’s a story as old as the arts. The rich powerful have long used their means to support artists and shape the works that they produced. The Medici family’s banking empire helped spur on the Renaissance in 15th century Italy. They were patrons of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and created the 17-foot sculpture of David. These works bolstered the Medicis’ reputation, showing off the family’s refinement and commitment to the cultural legacy of Florence.” Art depends on its finances, like everything else. Rich families and rich companies can afford to support and buy art. In her article, Yoder declares how other problematic issues arise from relying on sponsorship. She quotes Beka Economopoulos, the cofounder of a pop-up project called The Natural History Museum. Economopoulos explains how powerful donors affect the curatorial dialogue whether physically present or not. Curators, fearing for their funding, may hesitate to organize an exhibition on climate change if their main sponsor is a great polluter. This can lead to self-censorship, she argues. In a Norwegian context the issue of self-censorship may be buffered as the oil money finds its way to institutions through taxes and government support, not direct sponsorship. Still, it makes for a complex position for Norwegian institutions to include climate change and environmental issues in their curatorial dialogue.

A (theoretic) alternative to oil industry funding – work to develop a commercial local market for art

An alternative option to the local/national art community to depending heavily on the oil industry and governmental funding could be to work to develop a more sustainable and attractive commercial market for art. A more developed commercial local art market could perhaps provide a (small) healthy tilt to the existing balance. Several factors, such as financial prosperity and great artists, indicate that there does exist a market potential in this region. The collection of Equinor can potentially affect the market of some artists if the company chose to promote the existing collection and new acquisitions more. Is a potential art market waiting to be brought to life in Stavanger? It would be an interesting area to explore further.



I started this article by stating that the intersection between art and oil is hard to define. Yet they share a relationship so complex, so intertwined, that these areas are hard to separate. Art and the oil industry share an ambivalent relationship. The two are primarily connected through funding, in Norway mostly through governmental support, and the economic ties between them are not without controversy. It is also not a particularly balanced relationship. The art world needs money and the oil industry needs cultural support for their social profile, but the latter is a vastly bigger business. The dynamics between the art world and the oil industry has seemingly not, however, led to prosperity in the local art market yet. If the art world is to continue to depend on the oil industry, it could draw more from this relationship if it is ready to accept the repercussions.

Marie Stokkenes Johansen holds a BA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, London, an MA in Art Business from Christie’s Education, New York and recently completed an MA in economics. She has collaborated with ANSA and the Norwegian Embassy to promote fellow Norwegian art students in London, and has held internships at Zach Feuer Gallery and Winston Art Group. She currently lives in Stavanger. 


Further References:

Ekhtiar, Maryam and Marika Sardar. (October, 2004). “Modern and Contemporary Art in Iran”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (accessed December 13, 2020).

Hay, Andrew. (October 29, 2019). “As wildfire rages, LA’s ‘fire proof’ Getty Museum sees no risk to art”. Reuters. (accessed December 12, 2020).

International Association of Corporate Collections of Contemporary Art. “Equinor Art Programme, Norway”. (accessed December 12, 2020).

Lloyd, Jill. (May, 1998). “Review: Visions du Nord. Kirkeby. Nuit Blanche. Paris”. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 140, No. 1142, pp. 347 – 348.

McGill, Douglas C. (March 4, 1987). “Getty, The Art World’s Big Spender”. The New York Times. (accessed December 13, 2020).

Platform London. “Oil and the Arts”. (accessed December 10, 2020).

Statistisk Sentralbyrå. (accessed December 10 – 12, 2020).

Yoder, Kate. (December 18, 2019) “The Art of Oil”. The Grist. (accessed December 12, 2020).