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This Month’s Great British Break-Up

February 26, 2022

Stone exterior facade

The National Portrait Gallery, London

British Petroleum (BP) has sponsored an annual portrait competition awarded by London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) for the past thirty years. But after December 2022, that partnership will come to an end. While the Turner Prize is often considered the most significant art prize in Britain, the BP Portrait Award is still considered one of the most sought-after awards in the arts. It was first awarded in 1990, replacing the NPG’s John Player Portrait Award, named after and sponsored by the British tobacco giant John Player & Sons. The most recent winning work was awarded in 2020, going to Jiab Prachakul’s Night Talk.

The NPG is, to date, the most prominent cultural institution to end its business relationship with BP. While the NPG’s director Nicholas Cullinan spoke of how the gallery is “hugely grateful to BP for its long-term support”, this move was eventually going to happen. Opposition to BP’s sponsorship of the award, and in the arts in general, has grown in recent years. In 2019, a petition signed by eighty British artists, including five Turner Prize recipients, called on the NPG to cut ties with BP. The Tate Museums, the National Galleries Scotland, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company have all cut their ties with BP and other oil companies. Oftentimes, BP claims that these developments had nothing to do with climate activism. Instead, it was because of “an extremely challenging business environment”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. But climate activist groups like Culture Unstained have heralded the NPG’s decision as a sign that oil and gas companies will no longer be able to use cultural institutions to sanitize and promote their image.

One of the last major British cultural institutions to maintain its business relationship with BP is the British Museum. Like the NPG, many of the British Museum’s programs are sponsored by BP, and set to expire this year unless the museum chairman decides to renew it. Recently, a group of academics and museum employees signed an open letter calling on chairman George Osborne to let the sponsorship expire. While museum higher-ups will insist that corporate donations and financial support are essential to fund exhibits, lectures, and other programs, the British Museum is now becoming increasingly isolated as more cultural institutions break away from money made through environmental destruction.