The co-founder of non-profit Climate Emergency Fund, an organization which financially supported several climate protests in the UK including the throwing of tomato soup at van Gogh’s Sunflowers, is an heir to a major US oil tycoon.
The co-founder, Aileen Getty, is the granddaughter of J. Paul Getty, who founded Getty Oil, an American oil marketing company. At his death in 1976, the elder Getty was worth approximately $6 billion (or over $30 billion in 2022 dollars). Texaco purchased the company, and its oil reserves, in 1984 for $10.1 billion.
The heiress, Aileen, has never worked in the oil industry and is an active philanthropist. In 2019, she co-founded the Climate Emergency Fund, which provides grants to activists and protest groups trying to stop the widespread use of fossil fuels, often through civil disobedience.
The details about Getty’s identity and her financial involvement in CEF have returned to the spotlight after two activists from organization Just Stop Oil protested at the iconic van Gogh painting at the National Gallery in London earlier this month. The soup-throwing incident generated headlines worldwide and criticism from UK Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer. Video of activist Phoebe Plummer’s explanation for the action also went viral online.
On Saturday, Getty published an op-ed in The Guardian acknowledging her role in funding climate activism, noting how fossil fuel extraction made their families rich, and calling for a systemic shift to clean energy. The New York Times profiled Getty and Rebecca Rockefeller Lambert, another oil tycoon scion, and their climate activism in August.
However, Getty’s ancestry has raised further criticism around the confrontational nature of many climate protests from organizations like Just Stop Oil, which frequently involve the (non-permanent) vandalism of major artworks and, in some cases, art institutions that do not have ties to funders of the fossil fuel industry.
In addition to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Just Stop Oil activists have glued themselves to the frames of famous paintings at the Royal Academy, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, and the Manchester Art Gallery.
The Just Stop Oil protests have inspired similar protests, including two German activists who threw liquid mashed potatoes at a Claude Monet painting on display at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany on Sunday.
On October 15, the CEF tweeted several statements about the criticism of Getty’s wealth. Pointing to her long standing philanthropic work in housing, HIV/AIDs, and climate activism, the organization asked, “If you were in her shoes, how would you use your money for good?”
For Getty, it likely means more fundraising and high-profile headline-garnering events, after CEF announced October would be a month of “sustained, disruptive protest” in 11 countries. Four Just Stop Oil protesters were arrested Sunday after blocking traffic on London’s Abbey Road, the crossing made famous by The Beatles.