BP or not BP? activists and artists protesting the BP Portrait Award in February 2016

National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) has become the latest arts organization to end its sponsorship from the oil company, British Petroleum (BP). In a statement published this morning, trustees of the institution cited the “climate emergency” as being behind their decision to cut ties with the fossil fuel multinational. The gallery follows in the footsteps of Tate, Edinburgh International Festival and, more recently, the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company.

Each year the National Portrait Gallery in London stages a portrait-painting competition for professional and amateur artists with a £35,000 (~$45,000) grand prize. The BP Portrait Prize exhibition is hosted at the London gallery in the summer, before touring to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh in the winter. According to the gallery’s statement, after the 2019 BP Portrait Prize, which opens on December 7, the Edinburgh gallery will no longer host the exhibition “in its present form.”

The decision comes after a series of protests at the annual BP Portrait Prize exhibition, organized by the Scottish branch of the activist group BP or Not BP? During one protest, the activists dressed up as BP executives and held paintings of people and places affected by BP’s activities. In another, protestors gathered in the main entrance of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to sing climate-themed Christmas carols. These activists argue that BP uses the prestigious art prize to whitewash its reputation.

BP or not BP? activists and artists protesting the BP Portrait Award in February 2016

Calls for the National Portrait Gallery in London to end its sponsorship with BP have escalated in recent months. Protestors from BP or Not BP? blocked entry to this year’s awards ceremony by linking arms and chaining themselves to the gallery’s gates. Around the same time 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.” On the last day of the London exhibition, activists from Extinction Rebellion poured fake oil over semi-naked protestors in the gallery.

Last week it was announced that in June 2020 London’s National Portrait Gallery will close for a three-year £35-million ($45-million) redevelopment. A spokesperson for the gallery refused to confirm or deny that the closure would put an end to the BP-sponsored prize, saying only that the board was “considering options.” The existing partnership between the gallery and oil company is due to run until 2022.

In 2016, Tate and Edinburgh International Festival both announced that they would no longer accept sponsorship from BP, after 26 and 34 years respectively. This year, amid mounting pressure, the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) also discontinued their partnerships with the oil company. In a statement, the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran and executive director Catherine Mallyon explained their decision as coming about because “young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC.”

BP, in turn, said that they were “disappointed and dismayed” by the RSC’s decision. In a statement published on its website, the oil company said: “Ironically, the increasing polarisation of debate, and attempts to exclude companies committed to making real progress, is exactly what is not needed. This global challenge needs everyone – companies, governments and individuals – to work together to achieve a low carbon future.”

Other UK art institutions that have ongoing sponsorship deals with fossil fuel companies, such as the Royal Opera House, Science Museum, Southbank Centre and British Museum, have also come under attack from protestors. On November 21, the British Museum will open the BP-sponsored exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality. In response, BP or Not BP? has crowd-funded the construction of a Trojan Horse, which activists will bring to the museum in February 2020 for what is being described as the largest-ever protest at the museum.

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...

2 replies on “Invoking “Climate Emergency,” National Galleries of Scotland Will End Ties With British Petroleum”

  1. Seems like our politicians will do nothing for the Environment, so the public have to save themselves!

  2. I hope NGS is going to refuse funding from central government too. Much of this is sourced from taxes generated from North Sea oil.
    I hope BP or not BP also analyse the use of fuel sources at NGS and also the type of larger cars that the board of NGS members use… too much fossil fuel being used here I think.
    In short, the virtue signalling lacks consistency.

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