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Oil giant British Petroleum (BP) has been dropped from the panel of judges for the National Portrait Gallery in London’s BP Portrait Award, one of the most prestigious painting competitions in the world. BP has sponsored the prize for the last 30 years; until now, it had also helped determine its winner for over two decades.
The multinational’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has been increasingly contested as climate activists’ calls for cultural institutions to divest from fossil fuel-producing companies grow louder. During the ceremony for the 2019 award, dozens of protesters blocked the museum’s entrance, linking arms and chaining themselves to its gates; on the closing day of the award exhibition, activists from the Extinction Rebellion group stormed the Ondaatje Wing of the museum and poured fake oil on their bodies as part of a protest piece titled “Crude Truth.
In November 2019, the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) announced it would sever ties with BP, citing the “climate emergency” as the reason for its decision. The museum traditionally hosted the BP Portrait Prize exhibition after the show finished its run at NPG in London.
A spokesperson for NPG told Hyperallergic, “The judging panel is refreshed each year to ensure new perspectives are brought to judge the entries. The Gallery and BP jointly agreed not to have a sponsor representative on the judging panel this year.”
The coronavirus pandemic, which could decimate thousands of museums in the US alone, has raised urgent questions about the sustainability of institutional funding models.
“Right now, we need governments to commit to funding our cultural institutions at a sustainable level, both to support the artists and workers they employ, and ensure that arts organizations don’t come under pressure to accept money from sponsors that clearly don’t share their values,” a spokesperson for Culture Unstained, a nonprofit committed to ending fossil fuel sponsorship and a member of the Art Not Oil Coalition, told Hyperallergic.
“It would make no sense for us to try and recover from one crisis, only to then be giving legitimacy to companies like BP who are actively causing another, by extracting fossil fuels we can’t afford to burn.”
Gary Hume, judge of the 2019 prize, described the news of BP’s drop as “pleasing, though paltry.”
“The NPG should have bitten the bullet and used the opportunity of the prize going digital and the gallery closing for three years to cut its ties with BP, following the lead of other cultural institutions,” said Hume in a statement provided by Culture Unstained. “The board need to realize that they are now seriously out of step, and damaging the NPG’s reputation by maintaining a partnership with one of the world’s worst polluters in the midst of a climate crisis.”
Last year, Hume penned a letter to NPG director Nicholas Cullinan censuring BP’s sponsorship of the award, becoming one of several major artists to voice their opposition, among them leading British sculptors Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor, and Antony Gormley.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the question of how we fund art into sharp relief. Rather than just continuing with the old broken models, this is a wake up call to think very seriously about how we behave and to stop taking funding from huge contributors to the climate crisis,” Hume added.
In addition to the National Galleries of Scotland, several cultural institutions in the UK have decided to rescind BP funding in recent years, including Tate, the National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Earlier this year, the global oil and gas multinational Shell ended its relationship with the London-based art complex Southbank Centre and the British Film Institute (BFI) in the wake of mounting pressure from anti-oil activists.
In February, the anti-oil theatrical activist group BP Or Not BP? held its 40th protest at the British Museum, of which BP has been a corporate partner since 1996.