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London gallery ends BP sponsorship under pressure from activists

The National Portrait Gallery in London has announced that it is terminating its more than 30-year partnership with BP in what activists are calling a major victory for the campaign against fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts.

The gallery’s annual portrait award, open to artists across the world, has been sponsored by the oil company since 1990. But alongside other major cultural institutions in Britain, the National Portrait Gallery has come under mounting pressure from climate activists to look for funding elsewhere.

Chris Garrard, co-director of Culture Unstained, one of several groups that have campaigned against BP’s involvement with the arts, described the gallery’s decision to halt the relationship as a “significant win”.

“It’s a sign BP is really running out of culture institutions where it can clean up its image,” he said.

The oil company’s support for cultural institutions has been the target of protest as climate change has moved up the political agenda in recent years.

Environmental and activist organisations, such as BP or Not BP and the Art Not Oil coalition, have been calling on the National Portrait Gallery — along with the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company — to end a five-year sponsorship deal with the company, which expires this year. The sponsorship ran to £7.5mn across the four institutions.

Climate change activists protest against the British Museum’s links with BP in 2019 © John Stillwell/PA

Announcing an end to the agreement in a statement, Nicholas Cullinan, National Portrait Gallery director, said: “The gallery is hugely grateful to BP for its long-term support of the BP Portrait Award.”

Louise Kingham, senior vice-president, Europe and head of country, UK at BP, said: “The BP of today is a very different company from when we first started our partnership with the National Portrait Gallery. As we transition to become net zero by 2050 and help the world get there too, we must look at new ways to best use our talent, experience, and resources.”

The RSC was the first of the group of four cultural institutions to bend to public pressure when it ended its part of the BP financing deal mid contract in 2019.

So far the British Museum has resisted pressure to follow suit, arguing that amid sustained government cuts to arts financing, corporate sponsorship from the company plays a vital role in keeping exhibitions open to the public.

Garrard from Culture Unstained said a freedom of information request from his organisation had revealed that the museum was already in talks with the oil company to renew funding in 2023.

“If the British Museum tries to go ahead and renew this partnership it will look out of touch with the public mood on climate change,” he said.

The museum has been the scene of many related protests, with climate activists staging a mock drilling of Stonehenge inside the building this week.

The British Museum said: “Without external support much programming and other major projects would not happen. The British Museum is grateful to all those who support its work in times of reduced funding.” 

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