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LONDON — On Monday, June 10, a group of activists staged a protest outside the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), disrupting the BP Portrait Awards awards ceremony and continuing calls for the gallery to end its sponsorship deal with the oil company, British Petroleum (BP).
During the protest, the activists, artists, and performers blocked entry to the gallery for guests of the ceremony, linking arms in the doorways and chaining themselves to the gallery gates. They also handed out fake awards programs and painted live portraits of BP executives, as well as climate campaigners from West Papua, Mexico, Samoa, and the US Gulf Coast. Guests were forced to climb over the wall with the assistance of security in order to enter the gallery.
The protest was organized by BP or Not BP?, an activist group which has staged more than 50 rebel performances at BP-sponsored arts institutions, such as The British Museum. The creative action group is part of the Art Not Oil Coalition, which includes other activist groups like Liberate Tate and Culture Unstained.
In an email to Hyperallergic, a member of BP or Not BP?, Sarah Horne, said:
The climate crisis is unfolding at terrifying speed. Those who have done least to cause the problem are worst hit, while oil companies like BP continue to rake in massive profits while actively making the problem worse. BP spends tens of millions every year lobbying against climate action and blocking clean energy alternatives, while pushing for access to yet more oil and gas that we cannot afford to burn. The National Portrait Gallery needs to stop giving this destructive and irresponsible company a veneer of respectability it does not deserve.
The protest came days after artist Gary Hume, who is one of this year’s judges, published an open letter urging the gallery’s director, Nicholas Cullinan, to stop “hosting an oil-branded art prize.” This year’s winner of the portrait award was Charlie Schaffer.
In a separate letter to Cullinan published yesterday, eight artists who have been involved with the award in the past, including Paul Benney, Henry Christian-Slane, Raoul Martinez, and Darvish Fakhr, added their voices to calls for the gallery to sever its ties.
“We write to you as former winners, shortlisted artists and exhibitors in the BP Portrait Award,” the artists’ letter begins. “The refusal of the Sackler Trust grant demonstrated that the Gallery is indeed prepared to reject funding when a donor does not share its values. We urge you to apply this ethical rigor to your relationship with BP, and recognize it is a partnership that can no longer be defended.” Earlier this year, the gallery turned down a £1 million (~$1.27 million) grant from The Sackler Trust, because of its links with the opioid crisis in the US.
This is not the first time that the BP-sponsored prize, which is “aimed at encouraging artists to focus upon and develop portraiture in their work”, has garnered criticism. In 2017, the winner Henry Christian-Slane donated £1,000 (~$1,269) of his prize money to anti-BP protests. The same year, Culture Unstained issued a formal call to the National Portrait Gallery to end its BP sponsorship, saying it violated the gallery’s own ethics policies.
The gallery’s 2015 Ethical Fundraising Policy states that “we have a responsibility to ensure donations are not accepted from questionable or inappropriate sources”, including those which are “in conflict with the objectives and values of the gallery.” It is possible that next year’s BP sponsorship will be referred to the ethics committee for appraisal by the gallery’s trustees.
The NPG responded to the criticism, saying in a statement that it “respects other people’s rights to express their views.” In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the gallery said:
The sponsorship of the Portrait Award by BP is now in its 30th year. This support directly encourages the work of talented artists and helps gain wider recognition for them and enables free admission for the public, over 275,000 visitors in London last year. Since 2010 BP has also given special support to the BP Portrait Award: Next Generation program which encourages 14 to 21 year olds to become involved in painted portraiture.
A spokesperson for BP said the company was disappointed that artists had voiced their concerns about its support of creative endeavors. In a statement emailed to Hyperallergic they said:
As for BP’s role in the energy transition, our position is clear. 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 tothe climate challenge facing all of us.