Peter Kennard among creatives reclaiming their artwork from London’s Design Museum

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Photomontage artist Peter Kennard is among 40 artists who have demanded their work be removed from London’s Design Museum after discovering the institution had hosted a private event associated with the arms trade. The museum complied with the requests to return work by 01 August, but defended its curatorial independence from its need to raise funds and sponsorships.

In an open letter, the artists said that they are “appalled” that the London institution arranged for Italian aerospace company Leonardo to hold an event on 17 July, during the Farnborough International Airshow. A demonstration outside the museum also took place on the same day (02 August) in which several artists arrived to collect their works.

Many of the artists featured in the museum’s Hope to Nope show, exploring how graphic design and technology played a role in some of the major political events of the last decade. “It is deeply hypocritical for the museum to display and celebrate the work of radical, anti-corporate artists and activists, while quietly supporting and profiting from one of the most destructive and deadly industries in the world,” says the open letter. “Hope to Nope is making the museum appear progressive and cutting-edge, while its management and trustees are happy to take blood money from arms dealers.”

Signatures include graphic designer Tim Fishlock, whose work at the museum is a poster imprinted with the words: “SLOGANS IN NICE TYPEFACES WON’T SAVE THE HUMAN RACES”; Shelley Hoffman, whose Black Lives Matter quilt is on show; and Shepard Fairey, with his famous Hope poster of Barack Obama.

Speaking to BJP, Kennard – whose Union Mask was on show in the museum’s permanent collection display – said he was “horrified” to hear of the event, adding that, “they gave the excuse that they have to make money, but they shouldn’t be making money against the interests of its artists and customers”.

A lifelong activist, Kennard is best known for the images he created for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1970s and 80s, many of which are now held in the permanent collections of major British museums. He says that he will redonate Union Mask to the Design Museum if it develops a publicly-available ethical funding policy, which specifically refuses any funds from industries that he says are widely accepted as inappropriate partners for arts organisations. 

In response, directors Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black said that the situation had been exploited by “professional activists” whose work did not feature in the exhibition, “not all of whom are being accurate in their presentation of the situation”. Kennard described their comments as “shocking”, stating that “it just shows how incredibly out of touch they are with young artists – their work is shaped around their political views, they don’t need ‘professional activists’.”

A spokesperson for the Design Museum, said: “As a charity, 98 per cent of the museum’s running costs come from admissions, retail, fundraising and event hire, such as the one hosted that night. This was a private event of which there was no endorsement by the museum.

The Design Museum is committed to achieving its charitable objective to advance the education of the public in the study of all forms of design and architecture and is thus a place of debate that, by definition, welcomes a plurality of voices and commercial entities. However, we take the response to Tuesday’s event seriously and we are reviewing our due diligence policy related to commercial and fundraising activities.”

The artwork requested to be reclaimed has been removed, and the Hope to Nope exhibition will now be free of charge.

Union Mask photomontage, 2003 © Peter Kennard.
Danny Chivers from activist group ‘BP or not BP’ wears a Shakespearean ruff in the shape of the BP logo, made by artist Stik – one of the objects taken out of the exhibition.Image © Jenny Matthews.
Protest at the Design Museum. Image © Jenny Matthews.
Protest at the Design Museum. Image© Jenny Matthews.