Why did the National Portrait Gallery spend £22k to keep the end of its BP sponsorship under wraps?

As the British Museum continues to refuse to comment on the future of its sponsorship deal with BP – even after its current contract ended on 19 February – Culture Unstained can reveal how the National Portrait Gallery spent more than £22,000 in legal fees to avoid disclosing information about the end of its own contract with the fossil fuel giant.

The termination of the National Portrait Gallery’s 30-year relationship with BP was announced a year ago in February 2022 and finally concluded at the end of the year. But news of that shift in sponsorship could have come to light much sooner, had the Gallery accepted a ruling from the Information Commissioner to make more information about its BP partnership public.

Instead, the Gallery started an appeal to the ruling, apparently just in order to delay and manage how the announcement would be made. And now, documents released under Freedom Of Information rules (FOI) reveal how the Gallery spent more than £22,320 on legal fees as part of that appeals process. 

The documents disclosed to us offer one possible clue as to why: there was a controversial non-disparagement clause contained within the sponsorship contract with BP. Even as BP was on the way out, was the Gallery taking steps to protect the oil company’s reputation? 

And it seems the writing was already on the wall for BP two years before. 

The documents disclosed also include details of the National Portrait Gallery’s discussions with BP about ‘redirecting its support’ from the BP Portrait Award in early 2020 to the Gallery’s “Inspiring People” Project, where it would reward BP with naming rights for a new space as part of the gallery’s redevelopment. 

However, the Gallery’s Ethics Committee quickly intervened to veto this promise, insisting it must be “conditional to further debate” and should also be presented to the Board of Trustees for Approval. The gallery has since confirmed that “the funding that has been redirected to support the Gallery will not be acknowledged” with naming rights once the Gallery reopens in June 2023. 

The NPG’s partnership with BP was part of a block 5-year sponsorship deal with four of the UK’s leading cultural institutions that began in 2018. Now, three out of these four partnerships have been formally terminated, after the Royal Opera House confirmed last month that its relationship with BP had ended after 33 years and the Royal Shakespeare Company withdrew mid-contract in 2019. Meanwhile, the British Museum still refuses to confirm or deny whether it will extend its relationship with BP, even its current contract ended on 19th February after the closure of the BP-sponsored Hieroglyphs exhibition.

How the National Portrait Gallery spent £22k managing its breakup with BP

On 13th November 2020, we submitted an FOI request to the National Portrait Gallery asking for details of how the terms of its BP sponsorship deal had been changed after it was announced that the original focus of BP’s sponsorship – the annual ‘BP Portrait Award’ – had been cancelled for both 2021 and 2022. 

While the Gallery confirmed that it did hold relevant documents, it argued that they were all commercially sensitive – and would therefore not be disclosed to us. In effect, the National Portrait Gallery was claiming that the public wasn’t entitled to know the status of its BP sponsorship deal.

With the Gallery standing firm in its stance, we raised a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which looks into whether FOI requests have been properly complied with. One year on, after investigating our complaint, the Information Commissioner concluded that the Gallery had got it wrong and that not all of the information we had requested could be considered ‘commercially sensitive’.

See: Decision Notice IC-97816-D0Q5, Information Commissioner’s Office

But rather than comply with the Information Commissioner’s decision, the National Portrait Gallery seemed desperate to keep the information about the status of its BP sponsorship under wraps – and began an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s decision at what’s known as a First-tier Information Tribunal.

Then, on the 22nd February 2022, the National Portrait Gallery and BP announced that their sponsorship deal would not be extended and would now conclude at the end of 2022. Shortly after, the Gallery confirmed that it was now withdrawing from the Information Tribunal. 

So, it appears that the Gallery had submitted an appeal just in order to delay and stage-manage how the announcement would be made, to potentially minimise the reputational damage to its sponsor BP.

What we have now discovered is that the Gallery spent £22,320 on legal advice and services from legal firm Harbottle & Lewis LLP in relation to the case, all on submitting an appeal that the Gallery very likely had no intention of pursuing.

The documents that were eventually disclosed by the Gallery provided some fascinating insights into what might have played out internally at the Gallery. A signed ‘variation’ to the Gallery’s contract with BP set out a troubling “non-disparagement clause” which commits the Gallery to ensuring that none of its Directors, officers or employees will make any statement that is knowingly disparaging or derogatory to BP.

Could this be one reason as to why the Gallery went to such great lengths -and expense – to keep the details of the sponsorship deal under wraps?

Non-disparagement clause in variation to BP’s sponsorship agreement with the National Portrait Gallery, 31st July 2020

We also know that the British Museum’s contract with BP contains a commitment for each party not to bring the other into disrepute. Is this what lies behind the Museum’s continued refusal to comment on the status of its own sponsorship deal with BP?

“It’s hard to fathom why the Gallery went to such great lengths – and expense – to keep the discussions around the end of its BP sponsorship deal under wraps – especially if it had already accepted that it should not be promoting a major polluter on its walls. 

Rather than stage-managing BP’s exit from the arts, the National Portrait Gallery should have been seizing the opportunity to signal a step change in its ethics and show climate leadership. The British Museum must now take the opportunity that the Gallery missed – and drop BP for good.” 

– Culture Unstained

And other documents disclosed by the National Portrait Gallery suggest that could have happened…

Gallery’s ethics committee vetoes naming rights for BP – and future sponsorship?

It now appears that the writing was already on the wall for BP two years before an announcement was made. 

The documents released included a letter from BP to the Gallery confirming that funds originally allocated to the BP Portrait Award in 2021 and 2022 would now be redirected to the Gallery’s Inspiring People project – and it was suggested that BP could be acknowledged by giving the oil company naming rights of the Gallery’s breakout space outside its Learning Centre.

However, this was not to be. Further documents obtained by Culture Unstained reveal that the Gallery’s Ethics Committee was already playing an active role in putting limits on the BP relationship in early 2020

Its meeting minutes from February 2020 detail how the Committee insisted that the letter of agreement with BP with regard to BP’s possible naming rights should be “further strengthened to reflect that acknowledgement of the company for their project support was conditional to further debate in autumn 2022 and that this should also be presented to the Board of Trustees for Approval.

And the gallery has since confirmed that “the funding that has been redirected to support the Gallery will not be acknowledged once we reopen in 2023”

Email to Culture Unstained’s Co-director from National Portrait Gallery, 18th March 2022

It seems that the Gallery’s Ethics Committee – which not long before had decided to reject a significant grant from the Sacklers – had also concluded that promoting BP’s name on its walls when it reopened in 2023 would be the wrong move. But despite appearing to now finally accept that there might be ethical issues with promoting a major polluter on the Gallery’s walls, it still went on to spend some £22k in order to mitigate controversy and criticism around the exit of its notorious fossil fuel sponsor. 

Now, the British Museum is the only one of the four cultural institutions that signed a block sponsorship deal with BP in 2016 that has still not made a statement about the future of the relationship.

Its previous contract ended when it closed the doors of its BP-sponsored Hieroglyphs exhibition on Sunday 19th February – and it says it hasn’t been in talks with BP since 2021…

Have we witnessed the end of BP’s cynical sponsorship of the arts in the UK? Or does the British Museum still have something to hide? Why will it not come clean?

Activists from BP Or Not BP protesting at the BP-sponsored Hieroglyphs Exhibition, the final exhibition of the British Museum’s last contract with BP, which ended on 19 February.