An artist paints a portrait of murdered Mexican environmental activist Samir Flores Soberanes at the main gate of the National Portrait Gallery in June 2019 (photograph by Mark Kerrison, all courtesy BP or not BP)

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London and the British oil and gas giant BP announced today that they would not renew their partnership beyond December 2022, when their current contract is set to expire. The announcement marks the end of three decades of BP’s sponsorship of the NPG, the United Kingdom’s flagship museum exhibiting portraiture. BP was also the main sponsor of the NPG’s Portrait Award, a competitive and prestigious annual competition that will continue without BP’s patronage.

A joint press release by BP and the NPG did not make reference to the broader climate crisis or to the years of efforts by activists who have tirelessly protested fossil fuel sponsorship of the cultural sector. Instead, the NPG expressed its gratitude to the company for giving “a platform for artists from around the world, as well as providing inspiration and enjoyment for audiences across the UK.”

But Culture Unstained, one such group leading anti-oil advocacy, saw this latest development as an undeniable outcome of BP’s souring reputation.

“This is clearly a vote of no confidence in BP’s business,” Jess Worth, co-director of Culture Unstained, said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. “The company spent 30 years painting a picture of itself as a responsible philanthropist but it is rapidly running out of places to clean up its toxic image.”

The news comes as institutions in the UK face mounting pressure to cut ties with fossil fuel companies. This past Sunday, February 20, members of the theatrical protest group BP or not BP? staged one of their distinctive spoof actions at the British Museum’s new BP-funded exhibit The World of Stonehenge. Members of the group dressed up as BP representatives and satirically divulged the company’s plans to drill at the ancient site. A label explained that although the Stonehenge plans were a farce, BP is carrying out similarly destructive practices elsewhere in the world, including the damage of Indigenous rock art in Western Australia.

As the British Museum hosts its blockbuster World of Stonehenge exhibition, environmental activists from BP or Not BP? staged a spoof protest calling on the museum to drop oil sponsorship this weekend. (photo by Ron Fassbender; courtesy BP or Not BP?)

“The Murujuga rock art is sacred like Stonehenge — and even older. This place is the world’s oldest creation story. BP have connections to the Karratha Gas Plant and a footprint here. They shouldn’t: the footprint belongs to the Ngurrara people,” said Josie Alec, a Kuruma Marthudunera woman, in a statement from BP or Not BP?.

“We have big industry sitting on our Country every day, polluting our air, killing our animals, killing our plants and killing our Songlines,” Alec added.

Notably, BP continues to enjoy a sponsorship deal at the British Museum. Emails Culture Unsustained uncovered via a freedom of information (FOI) request revealed that the institution is pursuing a new BP deal past 2023. Culture Unstained also found that the British Museum regularly convenes a Chairman’s Advisory Group composed of representatives of corporations including BP, granting them privileged access to museum leadership. Last week, 300 archaeologists signed an open letter urging the British Museum to discontinue its relationship with BP.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a spokesperson for the museum said, “The British Museum receives funding from bp, a long-standing corporate partner, to support the Museum’s mission, providing public benefit for a global audience. 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.”

In 2019, activists from BP or not BP? blocked access to the National Portrait Gallery in protest of BP’s sponsorship of the museum’s Portrait Award (photograph by Mark Kerrison)

In recent years, several episodes turned up the heat on the NPG to break free of its association with BP. In 2019, British artist Gary Hume, who served as a juror of the BP Portrait Award that year, condemned the multinational’s sponsorship of that very competition, calling upon the museum to stop “hosting an oil-branded art prize.” An open letter authored by Hume was co-signed by 80 artists, including prominent names such as Anish Kapoor and Sarah Lucas. Groups like BP or Not BP? have also staged a number of creative interventions in and outside the physical space of the NPG, including a protest outside the 2019 BP Portrait Award Ceremony that required guests to clamber over a wall to enter the event.

The NPG follows a string of cultural institutions that in recent years have distanced themselves from the London-based oil and gas conglomerate, which between 1988 and 2015 was responsible for 1.53 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In 2017, the Tate and BP ended their sponsorship relationship, severing a 26-year long relationship; in 2019, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) followed suit. The Tate was quick to write off the part that performance artists and activist groups like Liberate Tate and Platform London played in their decision, although public pressure undoubtedly spurred the museum’s disassociation from BP.

The RSC broke ties with BP in 2019, following playwright and theatre director Mark Rylance’s resignation from the company in protest of its connection with BP and after the RSC conducted a survey of young people that showed that “BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC.” The National Galleries of Scotland also announced in 2019 that it was ending its relationship with BP, citing the “climate emergency.”

As the British Museum hosts its blockbuster World of Stonehenge exhibition, environmental activists from BP or Not BP stage a spoof protest calling on the museum to drop sponsorship by oil company BP

“We’re delighted that the National Portrait Gallery has finally seen the bigger picture and dropped BP. There is no way that our national cultural institutions should be legitimising oil companies in the midst of a climate crisis,” Bayryam Bayryamali, a BP or not BP? activist, said in the group’s statement. “This is the latest huge win for the movement against fossil fuel sponsorship, and leaves the British Museum and Science Museum looking isolated and out of touch.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.