Why BP has no place in our arts

Why are the national portrait gallery allowing a corporate criminal to paint its logo over their walls?

Alys Mumford
5 March 2016


Deepwater Horizon, Justin Stumberg, Public Domain.

BP is the world’s largest corporate criminal. It has been fined over $20bn dollars for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and yet continues to explore ever-riskier, and ever-dirtier, fossil-fuels. BP is implicated in human rights abuses, mass ecosystem destruction and, of course, contributing to runaway climate change.

And yet many people will associate BP not with destruction and abuse of people and planet, but with the Portrait Awards, a celebration of human life in all its variety. I even find myself referring to it as the 'BP Portrait Awards', and quickly biting my tongue.

I was one of a large group of ‘actorvists’ who staged a performance protest on Saturday morning at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, calling for BP to be dropped as a sponsor of the awards. We highlighted the cynicism of BP using the awards to improve their public image, and urged visitors to the gallery to support our call.

BP’s actions around the world, from displacing frontline communities and colluding with regimes with horrendous human rights records, to investment in tar sands and mass pollution, mark them out as a key player in human rights abuses and environmental destruction.

Yet BP is able to rely on the good reputations of our cultural institutions to curry favour and present an acceptable face to the public, while at the same time continuing to lobby against environmental protections and action on climate change. This greenwash must not continue.

Our protest marked the second time in recent months that the crimes of BP have been highlighted in Edinburgh. In October I was honoured to meet Gilberto Torres who was visiting Edinburgh as part of a ‘Fossil Free’ tour. Sr Torres was abducted and tortured while working for the Ocensa pipeline in Colombia. BP used the pipeline to transport its oil, as well as owning a 15.2% share of the pipeline. Many workers and union organisers were disappeared while working on the pipeline, with Sr Torres the only one to be returned alive after huge strikes against his abduction effectively stopped production. He is now taking BP to court over its alleged involvement in his abduction.

Upon his release from captivity in 2002, Sr Torres said 'solidarity is the strength that the powerless need'. We took action in solidarity with him, with others affected by BP's actions around the work, and with all those suffering the affects of the global climate crisis.

Our ask for BP to be dropped as a sponsor of the portrait awards, and for the Scottish National Gallery to put pressure on the National Gallery down in London to refuse oil money, is not without form. People have largely forgotten now, but before they were the ‘BP Portrait Awards’, the awards were sponsored by John Player, a tobacco company.

While the case for cultural institutions to drop tobacco sponsorship was clear, the case to divest from fossil fuels is even stronger. The human rights abuses and dodgy dealings of BP aside, any fossil fuel company is an inappropriate sponsor of our museums and galleries. Last year the science festival ended its partnership with Shell amid protests at the hypocrisy of an oil company sponsoring an exhibition on climate change.

This year the National Portrait Gallery's contract with BP is up for renewal. Now is the time for the gallery to follow the lead of churches, universities and others around the world and break their relationship with oil and gas.

We love the arts, and we recognise that funding is a constant worry for cultural institutions. But the rewards BP gets for its sponsorship does not equal the money it pays – just 3% of the funding the National Portrait Gallery gets is from BP, and in return BP gets huge positive exposure and the chance to paint itself as a sustainable and generous company. The small amount they offer could be replaced by sponsorship from an ethical company or, ideally, increased government support of the arts.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery doesn't currently accept any funding directly from BP, but by allowing its logo within its halls it sends a message – covering up oil spills with oil paints, and environmental destruction with artistic celebration. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery must take a stand and urge the Portrait Awards to cut ties with BP and help create the fossil free culture we need.

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