Scottish National Portrait Gallery Protest Performance over BP sponsorship of Portrait Awards

Today (Saturday 27 Feb) a group of artists and activists surprised the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh with a performance at its BP Portrait Award exhibition, in protest at the oil giant’s sponsorship of the prestigious event. The group ‘BP or not BP?’ are calling on the Scottish Gallery to refuse to exhibit the BP Portrait Awards unless a new sponsor is found, and are urging London’s National Portrait Gallery not to renew its wider sponsorship deal with BP [1,2].

The theatrical piece drew attention to BP’s dire environmental and human rights record, with members of the group displaying paintings depicting people, animals and landscapes damaged by BP’s oil exploration, whilst others in character as ‘BP executives’ attempted to paint a better picture of their company. The performers displayed banners and sang songs about rejecting oil sponsorship, before escorting the ‘BP executives’ out of the building [3]. The group also delivered a letter to the Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and invited the public to sign a petition [4].

Lauren McGlynn captured the action in these great photos. 

Claire Robertson, a participant in the performance, commented, “It’s outrageous that BP is allowed to clean up its reputation through association with the prestigious Portrait Awards, despite its well-documented role colluding with human rights abusing regimes in Azerbaijan and Colombia, funding destructive tar sands extraction, and causing environmental devastation with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill [5]

“BP have sponsored the awards for 25 years as the evidence of climate change has become far clearer and the need to act ever more urgent. Fossil fuel companies who are profiting from the destruction of the climate should not be allowed to paint themselves as respectable organisations with deals like this.”

Raoul Martinez [6], an artist whose portraits have been featured in the BP Portrait Award exhibition three times, supported the performance. He said:

“I have decided not to submit work to the National Portrait Gallery until they cut their ties with fossil fuel companies, and I hope other artists will join me. As research has shown, this is not really about money. Oil sponsorship only accounts for a few percentage points of the budgets of our cultural institutions. Alternative sources of funding could be found. 

“Ultimately, the fossil fuel industry is based on violence — violence towards nature, violence towards the many communities already being displaced by the effects of climate change and the pollution of their land, air and water, and violence towards future generations. There is no piece of art, no museum, worth more than the oceans, forests and atmosphere that preserve life on our planet, and so I urge all institutions to get on the right side of history and cut their ties with these destructive companies.”

This theatrical protest comes at a time when the (London-based) National Portrait Gallery, Tate, the British Museum and the Royal Opera House are negotiating renewal of their five-year BP sponsorship deals [7]. These institutions are likely to face escalating actions against renewal of these deals, with the campaign to end oil sponsorship of the arts already responsible for multiple protests at the Louvre, the British Museum and at the Edinburgh International Festival in the last 12 months[8].

bp-action-9Edinburgh-based artist Karen Bates [9] said: “There is no excuse for renewing such a backward facing contract. A change would give the institutions a breath of fresh air, and might even attract other artists; there will be people around the world who, in all good conscience feel they cannot apply for the award in the name of BP. I am sure there are hundreds of decent, ethical investors that would bring a more enlightened and respectable offer to the table.”

In 1988, the National Portrait Gallery ended its unethical Portrait Award relationship with tobacco company John Player that had begun in 1980 [5]. The group believe that in the light of the historic Paris climate agreement and the need to dramatically reduce global carbon emissions, ending the relationship with the fossil fuel industry is long overdue.

Claire Robertson from BP or Not BP concluded,

“The cultural legitimacy that BP gains from association with arts institutions far surpasses any benefit to institutions themselves. The National Portrait Gallery in London must stop providing good PR for the fossil fuel industry and find a new sponsor for the awards, and should not renew its separate five-year sponsorship deal with BP this year. The SNPG, which does not take any direct sponsorship from oil companies, should show some moral leadership on this issue to the galleries in London.”



**Print-quality photos are available through Flickr Credit: Lauren McGlynn **

[1] BP or not BP Scotland is an environmental protest group founded to challenge oil sponsorship of the arts:

[2] While the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is not funded directly by BP, the National Portrait Gallery in London receives 2.9% of its annual income from the oil company, through the BP Portrait Awards sponsorship deal, which is due to come to an end this year. See: 

[3] One of the ‘portraits’ in the performance was of Gilberto Torres, a former trade union representative of the Union Sindical Obrera USO, the oil workers’ union in Colombia. Sr Torres is currently taking BP to court in Britain. He worked on the Ocensa oil pipeline in Columbia, which transported oil for BP, who also owned a 15.2% share in the pipeline. In 2002, Sr Torres was abducted, chained and tortured by a paramilitary brigade, employed by Ocensa to provide ‘security’ and ‘defense’ around the oil infrastructure, through a secret agreement with the Columbian defence ministry [14].

When Sr Torres was finally released, after the union members went on strike and stopped the entire oil industry in protest at his abduction, he stated: “La solidaridad es la fuerza que necesitan los desvalidos” / Solidarity is the force that the powerless need”. Sr Torres leant his support to today’s performance protest, which was devised in solidarity with the oil workers and communities around the world who are harmed by BP’s destructive actions.

Information about Gilberto Torres’ case against BP:–kidnapped-chained-and-blindfolded-i-cant-go-bac-gilberto-torres 
BP hands ‘tarred in pipeline dirty war’

[4] Petition calling for an end to BP’s sponsorship:

[5]The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which leaked 4.9 millions barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, led to BP being issued the largest environmental fine in US history of $20.8 Billion. All references available on the website
‘Picture This – A Portrait of 25 Years of BP Sponsorship’ – Report detailing BP’s actions throughout their time as sponsor:

[6] Raoul Martinez is an artist who has been exhibited in numerous galleries: 

[7] BP sponsorship deals began in 2011, and run for five years:

[8] For the Louvre and London events, see: and

[9] Karen Bates is an artist living and working in Edinburgh:

[10] Edinburgh University last year divested its endowment fund from three fossil fuel companies

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