This year marks the 30th anniversary of the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award, but a judge and several leading artists with the competition have called on the British institution’s director Nicholas Cullinan to end his museum’s sponsorship deal with the oil company on ethical grounds.
“There should be no role for an oil company in the artistic decisions of any cultural organization, and especially not in determining the winner of the world’s leading portrait award.” wrote the award’s judge, artist Gary Hume in a letter published with the group Culture Unstained. “This is the 30th year of BP sponsoring the Portrait Award, and I would argue that 30 years is enough. As the impacts of climate change become increasingly apparent, the Gallery will look more and more out of step by hosting an oil-branded art prize.”
Hume took his position public over the weekend; the award’s winner is due to be announced later today. On Sunday, he told the BBC that he was inspired to voice his opinion after the recent Extinction Rebellion climate change protests. (In April, Hyperallergic reported about the group’s staged die-ins at institutions like the Tate Modern and London’s Natural History Museum.)
Culture Unstained is a nonprofit devoted to research, engagement, and campaigning against fossil fuel sponsorship in the cultural sector. For years, the organization has lobbied museums like the Science Museum and British Museum to end oil sponsorship, pointing a finger specifically at BP’s outsized influence over cultural institutions in the United Kingdom. They have also published research mapping influence between the oil company, Russia, and human rights abuses abroad. The group is also part of the Art Not Oil coalition, which includes other activist groups like Liberate Tate and BP or Not BP?
Jess Worth, a co-director with Culture Unstained, says that Hume got in contact with her organization through Extinction Rebellion, and decided to publish his letter with them after a meeting. The idea for an artists’ letter came from a student who thought she could persuade a few people to sign onto the cause. Worth then fielded the idea with Raoul Martinez, who has previously spoken about issues with BP sponsorship, who recruited the seven other signatories.
“We write to you as former winners, shortlisted artists and exhibitors in the BP Portrait Award,” begins the artists’ letter. “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.” They continue:
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.
Aside from Martinez, the letter is signed by Paul Benney, Henry Christian-Slane, Alan Coulson, David Eichenberg, Darvish Fakhr, Wim Heldens, and Craig Wylie.
The National Portrait Gallery has responded to the criticism, saying in a statement that it “respects other people’s rights to express their views.” A spokesperson continued in an email to Hyperallergic:
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.
Hyperallergic has contacted BP for comment but has not yet received a response.
The BP Portrait Award has courted controversy in recent years. In 2017, winner Henry Christian-Slane donated £1,000 (~$1,269) of his £7,000 (~$8,883) prize to the anti-BP protests. That same year, Culture Unstained issued a formal call to the National Portrait Gallery to end its BP sponsorship, saying it violated the museum’s own ethics policies.