Campaigners storm Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” room in National Gallery protest

Performers “rebrand” the famous painting and impersonate oil executives, in protest against the Gallery’s Shell sponsorship, privatisation plans, and the sacking of PCS Union rep Candy Udwin

At 1pm today, around 30 campaigners occupied the room containing Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in the National Gallery. The protesters – who had travelled from the Reclaim the Power action camp – staged a surprise performance criticising the Gallery’s proposed privatisation plans, and its controversial funding relationship with the oil company Shell.

UK - London - Protest against Shell sponsorship of the arts at the National Gallery
The “Shell PR team” give a presentation to gallery visitors. Photo by Kristian Buus.

The performance began with a two-person “Shell PR team” giving a speech to surprised gallery visitors, explaining how happy they were to be using arts sponsorship to distract attention from Shell’s destructive extraction activities and contribution to climate change. The fake Shell reps explained how “with this sponsorship the public will associate us more with art than Arctic drilling”. They also praised the Gallery’s plans to outsource up to two-thirds of its staff, calling it “a real commitment to privatisation; we fully support this attack on workers’ rights”. The full script can be seen below.

At this point, around thirty more protesters revealed themselves, loudly condemned the “Shell” professionals, and launched into a series of noisy chants and songs calling on the Gallery to end their relationship with Shell and halt the privatisation. They unfurled banners reading “Art for People not Profit” and “Kick Out Shell, Bring Back Candy”. This second banner refers to sacked PCS union rep Candy Udwin, who was unfairly dismissed from her job at the Gallery after raising concerns about the cost of the privatisation plans. PCS union members at the National Gallery are currently on strike over the outsourcing proposal, and are calling for Candy’s reinstatement.The group then processed through the gallery, chanting “No oil sponsorship! No privatisation! Reinstate Candy!” and singing “We want Candy – reinstated!” to the tune of the classic Bow Wow Wow song. Several security guards believed that the Shell staff were genuine and attempted to shield them from the protesters.

UK - London - Protest against Shell sponsorship of the arts at the National Gallery
Protesters march through the National Gallery, demanding an end to Shell sponsorship and the reinstatement of sacked PCS Union rep Candy Udwin. Photo by Kristian Buus.

The protesters were eventually removed by private security guards, as many of the Gallery’s own security staff are participating in the strike. Outside the gallery, the fake Shell employees unveiled a “new improved” version of Van Gogh’s sunflower painting, with several of the flowers replaced by oily Shell logos.

UK - London - Protest against Shell sponsorship of the arts at the National Gallery
The “Shell PR team” pose outside the National Gallery with their “new improved” version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Photo by Kristian Buus.

Susan Milligan, who took part in today’s performance, said: “Privatisation and dirty oil sponsorship are intimately related. They’re both part of the creeping corporate takeover of our public institutions. The National Gallery is providing cheap PR to one of the world’s most destructive companies, threatening staff jobs with a disastrous privatisation scheme, and sacking members of staff for questioning its decisions. By doing so, the gallery is putting the desires of polluters and profiteers ahead of the needs of its staff, the public, and the artworks in its keeping.”

Today’s performance was organised by activists from the “Reclaim the Power” action camp taking place near Didcot power station this week, supported by members of theatrical protest group BP or not BP?. It was one of (so far) eighteen direct actions against dirty energy that have been carried out by Reclaim the Power activists today.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery is not the only institution under fire for its relationship with Shell. Documents obtained by BP or not BP – and given to the Guardian – have revealed that Shell has been attempting to influence the content of the climate change exhibition at the Science Museum, which the oil company also sponsors.

UK - London - Protest against Shell sponsorship of the arts at the National Gallery
A street performer poses with the “Shellflowers” painting outside the National Gallery. Photo by Kristian Buus.

The script from today’s performance:

Hello, thank you for joining us today at the National Gallery, where we will be talking about how our sponsorship of the gallery helps us cover up our environmental and social misdeeds.

Yes, smearing our logo over this institution has allowed us to destroy numerous communities and the environment without fear of repercussions, particularly in the Niger Delta.

And as we turn to more expensive and damaging sources of fossil fuels, our stakeholders can rest assured that with this sponsorship the public will associate us more with art than Arctic drilling.

We’re all about locking the UK introit a future of fossil fuel dependency. By lobbying against investment in cheaper renewables and energy efficiency methods, we help maintain fuel poverty and keep those winter fuel subsidies rolling in.

Here at Shell we are all about putting profit before people and so we are absolutely thrilled to hear that the National Gallery has suspended their union rep Candy Udwin…wait, sorry…the National Gallery has sacked their union rep Candy Udwin. We feel this shows a real commitment to privatisation and we fully support this attack on workers’ rights.

Profitability, privatisation and corporate sponsorship: we’re delighted to see that the National Gallery has prioritised the needs of corporations like us rather than the public, the environment, its workers and the artworks in its keeping.


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