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The National Portrait Gallery announced in February that its relationship with the energy giant, BP, would soon be coming to an end. The oil and gas company is a significant sponsor of the London-based gallery. The move comes after several years of protests that have been staged to highlight opposition to the gallery’s funding arrangements. BP has put up the money to finance the gallery’s world-renowned portrait prize for the last three decades, so the decision to drop the company as a corporate sponsor is a big move for the gallery. Nevertheless, some have seen the National Portrait Gallery’s association with – and dependence upon – an oil exploration and extraction company as being untenable in the twenty-first century in light of the global climate emergency.
Indeed, three years ago some of the former recipients of the gallery’s portrait award were among a substantial group of artists who said publicly that the institution’s board should cut its ties with BP. At the time, some climate change protestors made their point in a literal sense by covering themselves in oil at the gallery. One of the pressure groups that has campaigned for years to see the National Portrait Gallery disassociate itself with BP, Culture Unstained, welcomed the news. In a statement, it said that the move constituted ‘a major win’ for the wider campaign in the artistic and cultural sectors against sponsorship from fossil fuel companies.
Speaking on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, its director, said that he was very grateful to BP for its support going back over 30 years. According to him, the funding has helped to foster creativity and encouraged artists in portrait painting. “[The prize]… has been a platform for artists from around the globe,” he said. Praising BP’s involvement, Cullinan added that their sponsorship helped to provide an inspiration that meant greater enjoyment for art lovers across the country.
Nevertheless, it was already known that the BP Portrait Award would not be staged in 2022 – following a similar move last year – due to the central London gallery being currently closed for redevelopment. Instead, it is understood that BP’s sponsorship money is being put to use in other areas of the gallery’s work prior to its expected reopening in 2023. However, the portrait award will not bear BP’s name next year because the oil and gas company’s sponsorship will come to an end in December. The current sponsorship contract will no longer be renewed. However, the National Portrait Gallery did not reveal if it had any sponsor in place which might replace the one it had had.
For its part, BP said it would seek new ways to best use its resources, experience and talent to help it to achieve its aim of a net-zero target by 2050. Louise Kingham, an executive at the company, said that BP was proud to have championed British arts and culture for such a long time and that the firm was a very different one today from when it had first started its relationship with the gallery. For example, BP has said that it wants to lower the carbon intensity of the products it sells by half by the middle of the century or sooner.
However, such aims have not been enough to persuade campaigners nor some famous artists about its ongoing financial relationship with arts institutions. In the past, numerous artists have signed letters stating that the gallery should no longer have any dealings with BP. Among some of the most notable names were Sir Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor and Sarah Lucas, among others. Such public pressure has already worked. For instance, in 2019, the Royal Shakespeare Company decided that it would no longer continue its partnership with BP. Two years before that the Tate group of galleries also cut ties with the firm. Nevertheless, BP still enjoys sponsorship rights with both the British Museum and the Royal Opera House in London.
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.