In a move that will be welcomed by many protestors and pressure groups, National Galleries Scotland (NGS) has decided to end its links with British Petroleum (BP). This means that the Scottish gallery group has become the latest of several arts organisation drop its public association with a sponsor from the oil and gas industry in light of environmental concerns. The annual BP Portrait Award, which is a competition that is run by the National Portrait Gallery in London, will no longer be exhibited in Edinburgh. BP’s sponsorship of the exhibition that goes with the award will continue but NGS will no longer take part promoting it. In fact, NGS said that it had taken the decision to remove its association with the prestigious portrait prize because it had a “responsibility” to do everything it can to “address the widening climate emergency.”
In November 2019, NGS announced that the BP Portrait Award show – which is due to open at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in December – would be the final one to be staged in the Scottish capital. The portrait exhibition, which has run in Edinburgh every year, will only continue if the National Portrait Gallery finds an acceptable alternative sponsor. This means that the exhibition may still be staged in Scotland in 2020 but not unless BP is also dropped by the London-based gallery.
“At the National Galleries of Scotland,” the museum group said in a statement, “We understand that we have a responsibility to do all we can… and, for many people, BP’s association with this competition is seen as being at odds with [climate emergency] aims.” The statement went on to say that as a result of such considerations, the trustees of NGS had elected to end the oil and gas company’s association with the National Gallery of Scotland via the portrait competition’s show.
According to the views expressed by many in the museum sector, the announcement made by the Scottish group now piles on the pressure on the National Portrait Gallery to end its sponsorship programme with BP. After all, so several pressure groups have argued, the London gallery has one of the UK’s longest established art prize sponsorship deals with a petrochemical company. Indeed, the announcement made by NGS to ditch BP comes three years since the Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival both said that they would be terminating their long-standing sponsorship partnerships with BP. In short, the company now has even fewer allies in the museum sector when it comes to such controversial sponsors.
NGS said that its annual staging of the exhibition had been “extremely popular” with the public over the years that the portrait award had been running. It pointed out the fact that it drew both new and existing visitors to several different gallery spaces over the years, including those north of the border. “We are thankful to both the National Portrait Gallery in London and to BP,” the group said of its former association. It acknowledged that its links with the London gallery and the petroleum giant had afforded it with an opportunity to inspire young and talented portrait artists from around the world and to promote their work to a Scottish audience. However, the gallery group did not apologise for its association with BP. Instead, it made it clear that the sponsorship deal was now an issue for its own public image.
In fact, the exhibition and prize awards courted considerable public controversy last year. The artist English Charlie Schaffer won the 2018 top prize when his image of ‘Imara In Her Winter Coat’ was named as the top portrait. However, even during the run up to the £35,000 award being made, protestors were calling for the sponsorship deal to come to an end. Before the prize ceremony, one of the portrait competition’s judges, Gary Hume, conceded that BP’s involvement in it had become a problem.
For its part, BP said that it regretted NGS’ decision. A spokesperson for the oil and gas company said that BP was disappointed by the move because it was working to address many of the concerns surrounding the industry. It claimed that all parties needed to cooperate with one another in order to work towards a low-carbon future. In a statement, BP said that it was ironic that by polarising the debate on climate change, companies that were committed to making genuine progress on were being excluded. “This is exactly what is not needed,” the company stated.
Defending its association with BP, the National Portrait Gallery said that the company’s ongoing financial support allowed it to continue with a policy of free entry for the public. However, given that the Royal Shakespeare Company has also recently decided to turn down sponsorship with the petrochemical company, too, how long the National Portrait Gallery will continue in its association remains a question that many in the museum sector will continue to ask.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.