Campaigners for fossil-fuel-free culture have sent a formal complaint to London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG), alleging that the institution’s sponsorship deal with British Petroleum (BP) breaches its own ethics policies. Submitted by the research group Culture Unstained, the document calls for the museum to cut its ties with BP because of the oil company’s multiple connections to foreign regimes that violate human rights — an argument that underscores climate change as a human rights issue. The group, which is part of the Art Not Oil coalition, has also published an online, in-depth report detailing BP’s international business dealings. It highlights nine case studies, from Azerbaijan to Egypt to Indonesia.
The actions are timed to place pressure on the museum as it announces the winner of its 38th annual BP Portrait Award. One of the award’s judges is Des Violaris, BP’s director of arts and culture, whose involvement directly violates the NPG’s ethics standards, Culture Unstained argues. Specifically, the group cites a clause stipulating that accepting funding would not be considered appropriate “where support would impinge on the artistic or academic freedom of the Gallery or would otherwise compromise its status as an independent institution.”
Culture Unstained obtained the museum’s Ethical Fundraising Policy through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Its researchers highlight two other, much more problematic clauses that suggest BP’s sponsorship of the NPG breaches the institution’s regulations: they state that the museum may reject support when “the supporting source is known or suspected to be closely associated with a regime known or suspected to be in violation of human rights” and “where support is known or suspected to derive from the proceeds of crime.”
The new 33-page report, titled “Bad Company: BP, human rights, and corporate crimes,” delves into specific examples illustrating the oil company’s tainted record. It describes, among others, BP’s support of the repressive Alivyev regime in Azerbaijan; its deals with the Indonesian government to extract gas in West Papua, where indigenous Papuans are denied basic rights; and its pursuit of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico despite the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, after which the company pled guilty to 14 criminal counts.
Culture Unstained also made FOI requests to uncover the museum’s assessment of the appropriateness of BP’s sponsorship, but it received what it describes as “little evidence” to suggest that the NPG carried out a process of due diligence to examine the oil company’s disconcerting practices. Furthermore, BP announced last year that it will be extending its partnership with the NPG for another five years, as well as those with the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Opera House.
“The Gallery needs to explain what the purpose of having an Ethical Fundraising Policy is if you’re not willing to stand by your values and put it into action,” Culture Unstained’s representative Chris Garrard said in a statement. “It’s disturbing to think the Gallery might have researched BP’s close ties to regimes that violate human rights and decided that’s the company it wants to keep. And if they failed to subject BP to proper ethical scrutiny, then there are serious questions about whether this ill-advised sponsorship deal is legitimate at all.”
The complaint urges the museum to thoroughly review its decision to renew BP’s sponsorship contract, which Culture Unstained argues can only lead to the conclusion to terminate it. The group is also calling on the NPG to convene a dedicated ethics committee with representation from all levels of the museum’s workforce to properly scrutinize future situations that pose significant issues.
A spokesperson for the NPG confirmed that it has received the complaint and told Hyperallergic that “we will review and respond in accordance with the Gallery’s Complaints Policy.” If the institution fails to respond to or address the concerns raised by Culture Unstained within 20 days, the group intends to submit complaints to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman as well as the Museums Association, which has helped maintain museum ethics in the UK since 1977.
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