Pressure on the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to drop its BP sponsorship has escalated with 78 leading artists - including Turner Prize winners Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Mark Wallinger, Gillian Wearing and Rachel Whiteread - backing a letter calling for an end to the controversial partnership.
The letter urges the NPG’s Director not to renew the contract with BP, to start looking for alternative funding for the Portrait Award and to immediately remove BP’s representative from the award’s judging panel.
The full letter and signatory list can be found here.
The artists’ intervention is the latest development in the growing controversy around oil sponsorship of culture.
The letter has been spearheaded by artist Gary Hume who, as judge of this year’s BP Portrait Award, decided to speak out publicly against the oil sponsor in June because of his concerns about climate change.
He was joined by eight former winners and nominees of the BP Portrait Award who also voiced their concerns.
This new development comes just over a week after Oscar-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance resigned as an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company over its BP sponsorship deal.
Writing to the Gallery’s Director Nicholas Cullinan on 2 July 2019, the artists point to "BP's role in furthering the climate crisis, and our collective responsibility to act", and conclude that "the loss of BP as a source of funding is a cost worth bearing, until the company changes course and enables future generations to make art in a world that resembles our own."
One of the signatories, Paul Benney who has painted portraits of the Queen and Mick Jagger, exhibited at eight BP Portrait Awards, been shortlisted twice and won the BP Public Choice award, said: "One of the functions of an artist is to shine a spotlight on society’s inequities and injustices.
"We do this mostly in our work but right now is the time for us to speak out against what and who is contributing to the undeniably critical global climate crisis. I have learnt more about social responsibility from my daughters than from any other source. They have always walked the walk."
Last month’s announcement of the BP Portrait Award winner at a private reception was delayed when activist theatre group BP or not BP? temporarily blocked entrances to the NPG while artists painted portraits of frontline community activists resisting BP and of several BP bosses. The protest led to VIP guests having to climb over a wall in order to enter the building.
In March, the Gallery rejected a £1 million grant from the Sackler Trust over its ties to Purdue Pharma and the opioid crisis in the US, following a recommendation made by the Gallery’s newly created ‘Advisory Ethics Committee’.
On Monday 1st July, artist Nan Goldin led a protest at the Louvre in Paris calling on the museum to rename its ‘Sackler Wing’. In February, Goldin said publicly that she would not go ahead with a retrospective of her work at the NPG if it were to accept the Sackler Trust’s grant. The retrospective is now going ahead.
The Gallery’s BP sponsorship has not faced similar scrutiny by the ethics committee.
In 2017, campaign group Culture Unstained, advised by law firm Leigh Day, submitted a formal complaint to the NPG alleging that a key clause on human rights in the Gallery’s ‘Ethical Fundraising Policy’ had been breached by the decision to renew its BP sponsorship deal.
The Gallery dismissed the complaint, and its Ethical Fundraising Policy was replaced last year with the human rights clause in question removed.
The Royal Opera House (ROH) also continues to come under pressure over its BP sponsorship deal, with members of Extinction Rebellion holding their second protest in a month on 2nd July.
Last month, over two hundred musicians - including percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, tenor Mark Padmore and composer Nigel Osborne - called on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to withdraw permission for BP branding to be displayed in Trafalgar Square during ‘BP Big Screen’ broadcasts of ROH performances, arguing that it represented an unacceptable form of advertising.
BP has sponsored the Portrait Award for thirty years, taking over from the tobacco giant John Player.
The current five-year sponsorship deal was announced by BP in 2016 alongside deals with the British Museum (sponsoring special exhibitions); the Royal Opera House (to continue sponsoring the annual ‘BP Big Screens’) and the Royal Shakespeare Company (where BP currently sponsors ‘BP £5 tickets’ for 16-25 year olds). The oil firm also cut the amount it spends on cultural sponsorship by 25 percent.
All these institutions are now coming under increasing pressure to drop BP, with the British Museum in February facing the biggest protest in its 260-year history, by activist theatre group BP or not BP?, which opposed BP’s sponsorship of the Assyria exhibition and made the links between BP’s activities in modern day Iraq, climate change, war and colonialism.
A major BP-sponsored exhibition - ‘Troy: myth and reality’ - will open at the museum on the 21st November, and activists have vowed to target it.
Brendan Montague is the editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release from Culture Unstained.