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Charlie Schaffer, Imara in her Winter Coat, 2019. Photo: BP Portrait Award 2019 and the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Artists Call for London’s National Portrait Gallery to End BP Sponsorship

As Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, prepared to host the institution’s annual award ceremony on Monday, he also had to prepare to answer hard questions about the gallery’s continued partnership with British Petroleum, the sponsor of its prestigious portrait prize. A judge on the selection panel and eight artists associated with the gallery’s award—which is named for BP—sent letters to Cullinan on the eve of the ceremony renewing calls for the institution to cut ties with the oil giant.

According to The Guardian, a letter penned by judge and artist Gary Hume read: “As the impacts of climate change become increasingly apparent, the gallery will look more and more out of step by hosting an oil-branded art prize. Continuing to promote BP as the climate crisis intensifies will do unacceptable damage to the NPG’s reputation, relationships and public trust. I urge you to commit now to finding an alternative.”

A separate letter that was signed by Paul Benney, Henry Christian-Slane, Raoul Martinez, and Darvish Fakhr, among others, read: “We are in a climate emergency. Evidence of the damage fossil fuels cause to the climate, and especially to poor, marginalized, and vulnerable communities worldwide, is irrefutable.”

The letters arrive at a time when cultural institutions have come under intense scrutiny over funding and links to controversial donors. Beginning last year, several museums in the United Kingdom and the United States have declared they will not accept donations from members of the Sackler family involved with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. While the Tate, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have all recently announced that they will no longer accept money from the family, the National Portrait Gallery was one of the first institutions to distance itself from them—in March, the gallery refused to accept a $1.3 million grant from the Sackler Trust.

In response to the criticism over its relationship to BP, the gallery said: “The sponsorship of the portrait award by BP is now in its thirtieth year and this support directly encourages the work of talented artists and helps gain wider recognition for them and enables free admission for the public, over 275,000 visitors in London last year. Since 2010, BP has also given special support to the BP portrait award: next generation program, which encourages fourteen to twenty-one-year-olds to become involved in painted portraiture.”

A spokesperson for BP added: “As for BP’s role in the energy transition, our position is clear. We support the Paris agreement and are taking action to advance the world’s transition to a low-carbon future. We’re reducing emissions from our own operations, down 1.7m tonnes last year, improving our products to support our customers’ efforts to reduce their emissions and creating new low-carbon businesses. We are committed to being part of the solution to the climate challenge facing all of us.”

Brighton-based artist Charlie Schaffer was selected as this year’s first-prize winner for his submission of Imara in her Winter Coat, a portrait of an English literature student posing in a fake fur coat. He will receive $44,500 and a commission worth roughly $9,000, which is to be chosen by the National Portrait Gallery trustees.

The judging panel praised how the portrait’s “combination of several different textures including faux fur, hair and skin are revealed by prolonged looking and together these produce an image that is traditional, but clearly contemporary.” 

The second prize was awarded to the Norwegian painter Carl-Martin Sandvold for his self-portrait, The Crown, and the third prize went to the Italian artist Massimiliano Pironti for Quo Vadis?, a portrait of his grandmother. Another Brighton-based artist, Emma Hopkins, was named the winner of the BP young artist award. Their works be on display at the National Portrait Gallery from June 13 to October 20. 

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