Great Exhibition of the North: Two acts quit in protest at sponsors BAE

Nadine ShahImage copyright Rex/Shutterstock
Image caption Nadine Shah said she was “disgusted” at the company’s involvement

Two acts have pulled out of this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North in protest at the event’s sponsorship by defence giant BAE Systems.

Singer-songwriter Nadine Shah and ex-Chumbawamba member Boff Whalley’s Commoners’ Choir have withdrawn from the event in Newcastle and Gateshead.

The 11-week arts festival is being staged with £5m from the government’s Northern Powerhouse fund.

BAE has been under scrutiny for selling arms to countries like Saudi Arabia.

Shah – who was named the north east’s best performer at an award ceremony in 2015 – said she was “disgusted” to hear of the company’s involvement.

“[I] refuse to be in any way associated with them,” she wrote on Twitter. “I encourage all artists involved to follow suit.”

The Commoners’ Choir were due to be one of three choirs making their way through the streets on 23 June, singing songs composed by Whalley.

But they said on Twitter: “The discovery that BAE Systems are premier partners in the venture renders our participation impossible.”

However, Northumbrian folk group The Unthanks, who have two shows at the festival, said “we’d rather artists not be the ones to step down and away, or at least not yet”.

They said: “We may well follow suit, but are currently in consultation with all parties. Our preference is to take part in negotiations that we hope result in a successful exhibition that doesn’t hold or rely on these associations.”

They added that they were “prepared then to pull out if nothing changes” but were holding out hope that a resolution could be found and everyone could “enjoy a celebration to be proud of”.

Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith, who is due to perform with Rachel Unthank, said their concert “will not be funded by BAE Systems” and they were “currently in consultation as to how we can proceed”.

Sage Gateshead, where most of the concerts are due to be held, said it was “not in receipt of funds from BAE Systems”.

A petition asking the Great Exhibition organisers to refuse BAE’s sponsorship has been set up by activist Jill Gibbon.

BAE Systems describes itself as “a world leader in engineering innovation, manufacturing and technology” and employs more than 18,000 people in the north of England.

Its trade with Saudi Arabia was in the spotlight during a court case last year, when campaigners called on judges to block arms sales by British companies to the country because of its role in the ongoing war in Yemen.

However, the High Court ruled that the sales were lawful.

The charity War Child UK has accused private manufacturers including BAE Systems of “profiteering from the deaths of innocent children” in Yemen.

‘An important contribution’

In a statement, BAE said it was supporting the Great Exhibition of the North “as part of its commitment to address the UK skills shortage by encouraging more young people to consider science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers”.

The Great Exhibition organisers said such an event was “only possible thanks to the support and participation of public and private sector organisations alike”.

Chairman Sir Gary Verity said: “Our collective focus, working with all of our funders, supporters and contributors, is to make the very most of this opportunity to change perceptions of the north of England and drive future growth and success.

“Each of our sponsors makes an important contribution to helping us achieve this aim.”

The 80-day event’s full line-up was announced on Tuesday and also includes Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid, poet Lemn Sissay and guitar band The Kaiser Chiefs.

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