Art Market

Artists called on the U.K.’s National Portrait Gallery to end its sponsorship deal with BP.

Benjamin Sutton
Jun 10, 2019 5:07PM, via The Guardian

The National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Andy Hay, via Flickr.

Artists, including one of the judges of this year’s BP Portrait Award, are calling on the U.K.’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to end its sponsorship deal with energy giant BP. The artists are accusing the art institution of being complicit in BP’s activities and their contributions to climate change.

In a letter sent on Friday to the NPG’s director, Nicholas Cullinan—and published by the nonprofit Culture Unstained—the painter, one-time Turner Prize nominee, and 2019 BP Portrait Award judge Gary Hume wrote:

I know how difficult fundraising is and how valuable an ongoing relationship with a major corporate sponsor can be. But in the case of BP, I feel that this is outweighed by the need to act urgently on the climate crisis we are now facing. Because this is such a high-profile sponsorship deal, I don’t think it’s possible to be neutral. Either we distance ourselves from one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers and embrace the challenge of decarbonising, or we continue to give legitimacy to BP and its business activities that are seriously exacerbating the problem.

In another letter written on Monday and published by Culture Unstained, eight former BP Portrait Award contestants (including the 2008 and 2011 winners) wrote to Cullinan:

With arts funding in decline, growing numbers of artists have little choice over which opportunities to accept or reject, and as the leading competition in its field, the Gallery’s annual award provides an unparalleled platform. 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.

BP’s cultural philanthropy has been the subject of sustained protests for the better part of a decade, particularly in the U.K. During that time, some organizations—including London’s Tate museums group—have ended their agreements with the global energy company. Others, like the British Museum and the NPG, have maintained their deals with BP amid escalating protests and performances.

BP has sponsored the NPG’s marquee annual prize for 30 years. In a statement quoted by The Guardian, a spokesperson for the company said:

We support the Paris agreement and are taking action to advance the world’s transition to a low-carbon future. We’re reducing emissions from our own operations, down 1.7m tonnes last year, improving our products to support our customers’ efforts to reduce their emissions and creating new low-carbon businesses. We are committed to being part of the solution to the climate challenge facing all of us.

These concerns come at a time when museums, including the NPG, have begun to rethink the ethics surrounding their sources of funding. The catalyst for this shifting paradigm came as a result of protests led by photographer Nan Goldin over funding from the Sackler family, some members of which have ties to Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. Museums that have recently turned down Sackler money include the NPG, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Tate museums, and others.

Benjamin Sutton