It’s been a bad week for BP and its sponsorship deals

This week, leading artists and musicians, as well as campaigners and activists, have spoken out powerfully against BP’s sponsorship of the arts. Just a few months ago, it was the British Museum being scrutinised over its BP sponsorship deal. Now the spotlight is firmly on the National Portrait Gallery and Royal Opera House too.

On Sunday, the Guardian reported that artist Gary Hume – a judge of this year’s BP Portrait Award – had written to the Director of the National Portrait Gallery Nicholas Cullinan, calling on him to end BP’s sponsorship of the prize.

‘Either we distance ourselves from one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers and embrace the challenge of decarbonising, or we continue to give legitimacy to BP and its business activities that are seriously exacerbating the problem.’

He also urged Cullinan to end the unusual practice of allowing BP’s Head of Art & Culture Des Violaris to sit on the judging panel for the award:

‘There should be no role for an oil company in the artistic decisions of any cultural organisation, and especially not in determining the winner of the world’s leading portrait award.’

You can read Gary Hume’s letter to Nicholas Cullinan in full here.

Then eight leading artists who have all been involved with the BP portrait award in the past – including two former winners – sent their own letter to Cullinan on Monday:

‘Evidence of the damage fossil fuels cause to the climate, and especially to poor, marginalised and vulnerable communities worldwide, is irrefutable.’

They highlighted how the sponsorship deal puts artists in a difficult situation where, in order to enter, they are expected to compromise on their values:

‘With arts funding in decline, growing numbers of artists have little choice over which opportunities to accept or reject… That we must be prepared to associate our work with BP, providing a veneer of respectability to one of the world’s worst polluters and drivers of environmental destruction simply to participate, is deeply unfair.’

You can read their letter to Nicholas Cullinan in full here.

That morning, Hume appeared on The Today programme, highlighting how BP still has 97% of its investments in oil and gas, and challenging the argument that because we still use fossil fuels we can’t speak out against BP.

‘It’s a way of stopping people speaking [by saying we use BP‘s products]. It’s a very good ploy on their behalf to say “you’re alive, therefore you can’t speak”‘

Meanwhile in Scotland, two activists from Greenpeace had boarded and occupied a BP oil rig the night before. The protesters climbed aboard the 27,000 tonne platform as it was being towed out of the Cromarty Firth, north of Inverness. Jo, an activist on board the rig, told The Guardian:

‘Warm words flow from BP on their commitment to tackling climate change. Yet this rig, and the 30m barrels it seeks to drill, are a sure a sign that BP are committed to business as usual, fuelling a climate emergency that threatens millions of lives and the future of the living world.’

Back in London at the National Portrait Gallery, preparations for the evening announcement of the BP Portrait Award winner were underway. But activist theatre group BP or not BP? had other plans as guests started to arrive for the prestigious reception…

The group’s creative action involved portrait artists painting pictures of those impacted by BP, singers serenading guests with anti-BP music as they arrived and, of course, activists attaching themselves to the Gallery gates. Several members of staff from BP as well as a government minister were caught up in the confusion, and a bizarre scene unfolded where invited guests in smart suits and dresses were helped by security to climb over the Gallery wall.

BP or not BP? protest against BP Portrait Award sponsorship, London, UK

Photo by Mark Kerrison.

The group also handed out their own “spoof” version of the official BP Portrait Award programme, which included quotes and accounts from those directly impacted by BP and on the frontlines of the struggle for climate justice.

You can read the full story of their protest here.

The following morning, The Times reported that over 200 musicians had called on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to withdraw permission for BP’s brand to be displayed as part of the Royal Opera House’s ‘BP Big Screens’ that take place annually in Trafalgar Square.

‘The oil and gas company’s sponsorship of the Big Screens is a clear investment in a form of advertising intended to bolster the company’s social legitimacy at a time of climate crisis. It is only with permission granted by your team each year that BP’s brand can be displayed’

Byelaws normally prevent corporate brands and advertising in the square – unless there is permission granted from the Mayor.

Among the 200 signatories were many well-known musicians:

  • From classical music, tenor Mark Padmore, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, and composer Nigel Osborne.
  • From folk music, renowned musicians Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, Mercury-nominated musician Sam Lee, and singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn.
  • From pop and rock music, Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, The Levellers and Vile Electrodes.

Allowing BP to advertise in Trafalgar Square by branding the Big Screens makes a mockery of any attempts the Mayor of London and the GLA have made to address the climate and ecological crises. This is a very serious situation and as leaders, it is their duty to take it seriously.’ – Fay Milton, drummer from Savages

You can read their letter here and get the full story here.

Meanwhile on Tuesday morning if you tuned into Radio 4, you might have caught John Bell praising Gary Hume and his fellow artists for their courage in speaking out against BP sponsorship.

That evening in Trafalgar Square, Extinction Rebellion Lambeth coordinated a large-scale creative protest against BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Opera House, with hundreds of “rebels” taking action at the BP Big Screen.

Their protest featured musicians from XR Baroque, the group’s bold and eye-catching “Red Rebel Brigade” as well as young arts students highlighting how, even though there are funding pressures in the cultural sector, there will be ‘no theatre on a dead planet’ (watch below).

The controversy is still unfolding, with numerous articles and reviews demonstrating that BP’s environmental and human rights record is increasingly overshadowing the institutions it sponsors.

And at the launch of the National Theatre’s new season yesterday, the Executive Director Lisa Burger was drawn into pre-emptively confirming that neither BP or the Sacklers were in the running to be the new sponsor of their discounted ticket scheme:

‘We don’t currently have any live sponsorship negotiations with either of those companies [BP or Sackler].’

(Although the National Theatre still partners with oil and gas company Shell.)

BP’s sponsorship of the arts is part of its wider PR strategy and has been carefully calculated to give the company the greatest possible postive impact. It attaches its logo to those projects that falsely portray the company as a generous philanthropist, such as the ‘BP Big Screens‘ and the ‘BP Portrait Award‘. And it also sponsors the British Museum’s ‘BP Exhibitions‘ and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘BP £5 Tickets‘ – all as part of a joint 5-year sponsorship deal. With pressure mounting on all four cultural institutions, it’s time for them to not simply acknowledge the climate emergency, but to act accordingly.




* At the time of writing, Greenpeace activists are still on board BP’s oil rig