National Portrait Gallery must cut ties with BP

| 10th June 2019
A performance by Children Against Global Warming at the National Portrait Gallery in August 2015, during Art Not Oil’s Festivoil Day of Action
(photo by Philip Grey, courtesy Art Not Oil)
Portrait artists echo call for National Portrait Gallery to act on climate emergency.

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The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is facing intense pressure over its controversial oil sponsor, BP.

Artist Gary Hume - one of BP Portrait Award (BPPA) judges - wrote to NPG Director Nicholas Cullinan calling for an end to BP’s sponsorship of the prize on the eve of the award ceremony. 

The Brighton-based artist Charlie Schaffer was announced as the winner of the award during a National Portrait Gallery reception last night.

Climate emergency

Eight leading portrait artists previously shortlisted for the award multiple times - including two former winners - have echoed Hume's demand and sent their own letter calling for the Gallery ‘to not simply acknowledge the climate emergency, but to act accordingly’.

This comes just months after the Gallery rejected a £1 million grant from the Sackler Trust over its ties to the opioid crisis in the US and led to Tate, the Guggenheim and other major cultural institutions shunning future donations from the family.

Judge and artist Gary Hume came to prominence as part of the Young British Artists movement in the '90s, has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize and elected to the Royal Academy.

He expressed his ‘discomfort’ at BP’s continued sponsorship of the annual portrait prize in his letter to Cullinan (full text below), citing the 'undeniable' evidence that our planet is rapidly changing and that BP is 'actively exacerbating that crisis':

Hume said: "Recognising that we are in a climate emergency means taking steps that we might not have planned for and, for me, refusing to launder the oil industry’s image is a step that the art world now needs to take."

Artistic decisions

Hume also calls for an end to the practice of BP’s Head of Arts, Culture & Paralympics sitting on the award’s judging panel: "No corporate funder should compromise our artistic integrity.

"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."

Highly respected portrait artists, including BP Portrait Award winners Wim Heldens (2011) and Craig Wylie (2008), are also speaking out. 

The artists highlighted the pressure the Gallery puts on artists to compromise on their values in a letter to Cullinan to sent yesterday: "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."

Last month, BP received widespread criticism at its AGM over its billion dollar investments in new oil and gas, a business plan which fails to align with the Paris climate goals. The company was also challenged over its continued attempts to obstruct climate legislation.

Shifting consciousness 

The other artists - all former BPPA winners, shortlisted artists and exhibitors - are Paul Benney (has exhibited at 8 BPPAs, won the public choice award twice and been shortlisted twice), Henry Christian-Slane (won the BP Young Artist award in 2017), Alan Coulson (selected for the BP Portrait Award in 2010, 2011, 2012 (winning third prize) and 2014), David Eichenberg (has exhibited 3 times and came 3rd in 2010), Darvish Fakhr (won the BP Travel Award in 2004, also exhibited in 4 other years) and Raoul Martinez (has exhibited 3 times).

The Gallery has regularly faced opposition to its BP sponsorship deal, from creative activist actions inside the Award exhibition to winner of the 2017 Young Portrait Award (and letter signatory) Henry Christian-Slane donating a share of his prize money to Greenpeace in protest at the oil company.

In the same year, Culture Unstained submitted a formal complaint outlining how the Gallery’s BP partnership breached key human rights clauses of its ‘Ethical Fundraising Policy’.

Jess Worth, Co-Director of Culture Unstained, said: "It is unprecedented for an award's judge to speak out against its sponsor, and extremely brave of artists who have previously benefited from the award to do the same.

"This is a sign of how dramatically consciousness about climate change has shifted just in the last few months. Sticking its fingers in its ears and hoping this all goes away is no longer an option for the National Portrait Gallery. It must now drop BP or face catastrophic damage to its reputation."

Due diligence

Chris Garrard, Co-Director of Culture Unstained, added: "The Gallery’s significant decision to reject a grant from the Sackler Trust came after careful scrutiny from its ‘Advisory Ethics Committee’, a body newly created last year.

"Its BP sponsorship deal is yet to face the same scrutiny. In fact, the Gallery has previously admitted it has no record of any proper ‘due diligence’ checks on its BP partnership.

"The Gallery must demonstrate that it is consistent in its decision-making, otherwise the public will rightly question why BP is getting special treatment and a seat on the judging panel."

BP has sponsored the Portrait Award for 30 years, taking over from the tobacco giant John Player. Its current 5-year sponsorship deal was announced 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’, the scheme for 16-25 year olds).

Tragedy

All these institutions are 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 made the links between BP’s activities in Iraq, climate change, war and colonialism.

On Tuesday the Royal Opera House will face its biggest ever protest from hundreds of Extinction Rebellion activists, who have pledged to creatively disrupt the flagship 'BP Big Screen' broadcast of Romeo and Juliet in Trafalgar Square, by 'acting out the world's greatest tragedy as you’ve never seen it before'.

This Author 

Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from Culture Unstained. 

Image: A performance by Children Against Global Warming at the National Portrait Gallery in August 2015, during Art Not Oil’s Festivoil Day of Action. Philip Grey, courtesy Art Not Oil. Source: Hyperallergic.

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