BP’s 30-year sponsorship of National Portrait Gallery to end 

  • Gallery announces end of 30-year partnership after pressure from leading artists, campaigners and public
  • Gallery joins leading cultural institutions in ‘unstoppable rejection’ of fossil fuel funding
  • British Museum now in the spotlight over Director’s plans to renew BP sponsorship
BP or not BP? stage an intervention in 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery, bringing a portrait of exiled West Papuan leader Benny Wenda into the Gallery. Photo by Kristian Buus.

In a major win for the campaign against fossil fuel sponsorship, the National Portrait Gallery has today announced that it is ending its partnership with BP after over 30 years of the oil and gas company sponsoring the BP Portrait Award. The announcement follows years of growing opposition to BP’s sponsorship of the Gallery, from artist Gary Hume speaking out against the sponsorship while a judge of the annual portrait prize, to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery announcing it would no longer host the exhibition each year, to numerous creative protests taking place at the Gallery itself.

The news comes as pressure mounts on the British Museum to end its BP sponsorship deal after it was revealed just last week that the Director has already been seeking to renew the controversial partnership, and over 300 archaeologists came out in opposition to the renewal.

This significant win follows years of opposition from artists and the public and is evidence that the tide is turning on the role of fossil fuels in public life. In June 2019, artist Gary Hume, one of the award’s judges, chose to speak out against BP sponsorship on the day of the award ceremony, along with a group of former winners of the award. They were then supported by a group of leading artists, who wrote to Director Nicholas Cullinan to call on him to end the partnership, including Turner Prize winners Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread. The award ceremony itself was creatively blockaded by activist theatre group BP or not BP? forcing guests to have to climb over a wall to enter.

Then in November 2019, following a wave of creative actions from BP or not BP? Scotland, National Galleries Scotland which hosted the BP Portrait Award every year in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, announced that:

‘We recognise that we have a responsibility to do all we can to address the climate emergency. For many people, the association of this competition with BP is seen as being at odds with that aim. Therefore, after due consideration, the trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland have decided that this will be the last time that the galleries will host this exhibition in its present form.’

All this controversy led to BP’s representative being dropped from the judging panel for the 2020 Awards which took place virtually due to Covid. The Gallery then closed for refurbishment and quietly announced there would be no BP Portrait Awards in 2021 and 2022, although its other awards are continuing. Today’s announcement confirms that the Gallery and BP have decided that the partnership had become too controversial.

Jess Worth, Co-director of Culture Unstained, said:

‘While the Gallery won’t say it out loud, this is clearly a vote of no confidence in BP’s business. The company spent 30 years painting a picture of itself as a responsible philanthropist but it is rapidly running out of places to clean up its toxic image. Even now, it continues to invest in finding new sources of oil and gas, which will only push the world deeper into climate breakdown. We’re seeing an unstoppable rejection of fossil fuel funding from our museums and galleries. But the pressure is now on the British Museum, which is currently deciding whether to renew its own BP sponsorship deal, to get on the right side of history.’

Bayryam Bayryamali, from BP or not BP?, said:

‘We’re delighted that the National Portrait Gallery has finally seen the bigger picture and dropped BP. There is no way that our national cultural institutions should be legitimising oil companies in the midst of a climate crisis. This is the latest huge win for the movement against fossil fuel sponsorship, and leaves the British Museum and Science Museum looking isolated and out of touch.’

As well as actions by BP or not BP? the Gallery has seen protests from other members of the Art Not Oil coalition over the years, notably 25 Portraits in Oil in 2014, and Liberate Tate’s 2016 performance ‘Birthmark’, which involved occupying the gallery to tattoo each other with the numbers of the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere in the year they were born. There have also been protests inside the Gallery led by young members of Extinction Rebellion.

The announcement of the end of the partnership comes as the oil giant faces huge public criticism over the huge profits it announced a few weeks ago, generated in part from the rising energy prices that are forcing many UK households to have to choose between heating and eating. BP is also continuing to invest millions in new exploration for oil and gas despite the International Energy Agency making clear that there can be no new investments in oil and gas exploration if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Last year BP, along with other major oil companies, was barred from sponsoring or having any formal role at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow as its business plans were judged not to be consistent with the Paris Climate targets.

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