National Portrait Gallery Drops BP Judge After Prolonged Protest

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For the first time in over two decades the National Portrait Gallery has not included a representative from oil giant BP on the judging panel for its annual Portrait Award.

The presence of BP as a headline sponsor for the prestigious prize has seen it beset by criticism and protests, culminating in two artist-led campaigns calling for the oil company’s judging presence to be dropped in 2019.

The gallery claimed the judging change was not in response to public pressure, a statement activists called “disingenuous”.


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Public pressure

When asked by DeSmog if the change to the panel’s composition would be permanent, a spokeswoman from the National Portrait Gallery said that “the judging panel changes each year”.

The Gallery and BP jointly agreed not to have a sponsor representative on the judging panel this year,” she said in a statement, adding that, “no”, the decision was not influenced by last year’s opposition. 

But campaign group Culture Unstained, who helped inform the 2019 pushback against BP’s relationship with the prize, disagrees.

It’s absolutely no coincidence that they’ve taken that decision,” co-director Dr Chris Garrard told DeSmog, “and I think it’s disingenuous of the Portrait Gallery to claim otherwise; you can’t have such prominent artists and stakeholders call you out on your lack of curatorial independence and then not do something about it.” 

The fact it’s regarding an oil company that’s exacerbating the climate crisis makes the situation even more egregious.”

Details of the full judging panel were released to the media in the shortlist announcement on 23 April, “as is our usual practice”, said the spokeswoman. But in the document seen by DeSmog no specific attention was drawn to the absence of a representative from BP.

For Garrard, this quiet handling of the subject is a missed opportunity for the gallery to have shown “ethical leadership on climate change”. 

Pleasing, though paltry,” was how artist and former prize-judge Chris Hume, who initiated last year’s criticism in a letter to the gallery’s director, described the decision in a statement to Culture Unstained.

The National Portrait Gallery 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. The board need to realize that they are now seriously out of step, and damaging the gallery’s reputation by maintaining a partnership with one of the world’s worst polluters in the midst of a climate crisis.”

BP declined to comment, directing queries to the National Portrait Gallery.

Continued protest

The news follows a year in which there has been mounting pressure on arts institutions to renounce oil company sponsorship.

The National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, National Galleries Scotland and Tate have already dropped, or announced that they intended to drop, their deals with Shell and BP, respectively. Those remaining in the receipt of fossil-fuel money have seen continued protest.

Before the prize-giving ceremony for last year’s BP Portrait Award, the activist group BP or Not BP descended on the gallery, forcing guests to climb over a wall to enter.

Such activism will not be possible at this year’s event, which, like the accompanying exhibition, has been moved online in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown. But thoughts about how to best support arts institutions in the face of rising economic uncertainty are very much at the fore of campaigners’ minds.

According to Hume, “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 wakeup call to think very seriously about how we behave and to stop taking funding from huge contributors to the climate crisis.”

Imaged Credit: © Bp or Not BP, Mark Kerrison. 

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