Art sponsorship is always a delicate and controversial subject; galleries are often left underfunded without outside financial help, but at the same time such help often requires endorsing (or at least legitimising) corporations or institutions that come with their own range of issues. Think of the Sackler Trust, for example, which has recently frozen donations to UK art institutions after being rejected for links to the US opioid crisis.
BP is another sponsor that has controversially funded the arts for some time (it sponsored Tate galleries for 27 years before the partnership ended in 2017). This has led to many protests, such as the one held by activists at the British Museum in February. However, London’s National Portrait Gallery is still tied to the oil giant, which has sponsored its annual Portrait Award for 30 years. It’s this connection that has been addressed in a new open letter signed by almost 80 artists.
The artists state that their aim is to encourage the gallery “to focus on what we believe to be the fundamental issue here,” the letter reads: “BP’s role in furthering the climate crisis, and our collective responsibility to act.”
Supporting the demands for the gallery to sever ties with BP, Hume brings up the company’s very poor record regarding the funding of renewable energy sources. “Despite its acknowledgement that climate change is a problem, and the prominence of BP’s green credentials in its advertising,” he writes, “the company is choosing to invest 97% of its available capital in fossil fuel exploitation and a mere 3% in renewables.”
“Unfortunately, BP’s continued sponsorship of the Portrait Award is lending credence to the company’s misleading assurance that it’s doing all it can, and so we, as artists, feel we must speak up.”
There are also some clear demands laid out in the letter. It asks that the National Portrait Gallery commits to: “not renew the contract with BP when it expires in 2022”, “start looking for alternative funding for the Portrait Award”, and “as an immediate first step, remove the BP representative from the judging panel.”