The National Portrait Gallery in London will cut ties with British Petroleum, ending the oil giant’s sponsorship of the gallery’s annual Portrait Award after more than 30 years. According to a statement from a BP spokesperson, their contract will not extend past December, when it is set to expire.
The oil firm’s sponsorship of the Portrait Award has been the subject of controversy for years, with frequent protests at the awards ceremony. In 2019, activists from Extinction Rebellion drenched themselves in fake oil in the gallery’s Ondaatje Wing main hall, where several artworks sponsored by BP are exhibited. That same year, dozens of British artists, including Sarah Lucas, Antony Gormley, and Anish Kapoor, signed a letter asking the gallery to end the partnership due to “BP’s role in furthering the climate crisis.” In 2020, BP withdrew from the award’s judging panel for the first time in 23 years.
The BP Portrait Award is on a two-year hiatus while the National Portrait Gallery’s St Martin’s Place location is closed for a major renovation.
BP executive Louise Kingham said in a statement, “We are immensely proud of our role in championing British arts and culture for over 30 years, but the BP of today is a very different company from when we first started our partnership with the National Portrait Gallery.” He pledged that the company would reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and become an “integrated energy company.”
The news follows impassioned campaigns for UK arts institutions to divest themselves of fossil fuel philanthropy. A few London venues have heeded the call: The Royal Shakespeare Company cut ties with BP in 2019, while the Tate ended its partnership in 2017.
Last weekend at the British Museum, climate activists from the group BP or Not BP posed as museum staff and presented satirical “Stonehenge drilling plans,” a reference to a Stonehenge blockbuster at the museum that has received funding from the oil company. The protest came after released emails revealed that British Museum director Hartwig Fischer was “pushing ahead with renewing the museum’s controversial sponsorship deal with the oil and gas giant BP despite huge opposition to the partnership,” BP or not BP said in a statement.
In the last decade, scrutiny over partnerships between art institutions and private companies have deepened worldwide. Facing pressure from artists and activists to sever ties to the Sackler family, the longtime owners of Purdue Pharmaceuticals who were charged with exacerbating the U.S. opioid epidemic, several major institutions, including the Louvre, Guggenheim Museum, and the Tate, announced that they would no longer accept money from the Sackler Trust.
Meanwhile, the Sackler name has been quietly stripped from public view: last January, the Serpentine Galleries became the latest institution to remove the disgraced family’s name from its building. The institution, which maintains two spaces in central London, wiped the family from its online exhibition archive and renamed its second location—formerly known as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery—the Serpentine North Gallery.