Letter to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, February 2016

29th February 2016

Dear Mr Baker and the National Galleries of Scotland Board of Trustees:

Re: BP sponsorship of the Portrait Award

We are “BP or not BP Scotland”, a newly formed group of artists, students, environmentalists, culture-lovers and other concerned citizens, who live in Scotland and care deeply about the arts, the environment and social justice.

You may have heard that last Saturday (27th February), we carried out a pop-up performance in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to raise awareness of BP’s serious malpractice and to challenge its sponsorship of the BP Portrait Award. We strongly believe that BP is an inappropriate sponsor of this award, and of public art institutions in general, due to its appalling  environmental, safety and human rights record and its contribution to climate change.

We are writing today to ask you to reconsider which companies you allow a platform in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. We would like to arrange a meeting with you to discuss this issue more fully.

We are deeply concerned by anthropogenic climate change which seriously threatens humanity and many other species on this planet, and is set on a terrifying trajectory due to the ever increasing rate of burning fossil fuels; companies worldwide have already laid claim to four times the volume of oil, gas and coal reserves we can burn and remain within a ‘safe operating space for humanity’ i.e. a warming of 2 degrees celsius [1]. These reserves must never be burnt.

However in a recent business plan [2], BP not only admits that its actions will lead to disastrous climate change, but states that it intends to expand its oil exploration into the future. Despite rebranding itself as an environmentally sustainable company with a new logo and ‘beyond petroleum’ slogan, BP has recently axed its solar department, invested $1.6 billion in tar sands, and has lobbied against environmental laws and clean energy alternatives [3, 4, 5, 6].

Furthermore, BP has an appalling environmental and safety record. I’m sure you are aware of the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. The explosion of this offshore oil rig killed 11 workers, and leaked 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the largest environmental catastrophe in US history, contaminating the entire food web, severely impacting wildlife and fish stocks, the effects of which will be felt for decades, and causing thousands to lose their livelihoods. Hundreds of lawsuits have been brought against BP, as the oil and chemicals since utilised have caused severe health problems, particularly for clean-up workers. BP has been fined over $20 billion for its “gross negligence”, the largest environmental fine in history [3, 7].

Although extreme, this is by no means unique for BP.  Every year the company pays out millions in fines for repeatedly disposing of waste illegally and causing spills. It also has an appalling workplace safety record; Deepwater Horizon is not the first time workers have died from an explosion related to BP operations [3].

BP has been implicated in serious human rights abuses. Over the past 25 years, the company has repeatedly traded with oppressive and military regimes in Azerbaijan, Algeria, and even with Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. One of the ‘portraits’ in the performance on Saturday was of Gilberto Torres, a former trade union representative of USO, the oil workers’ union of Colombia. Sr Torres worked on the Ocensa oil pipeline in Colombia, which transported oil for BP. BP also owned a 15.2% share in the pipeline. In 2002, Torres was abducted and tortured by a paramilitary brigade, employed by Ocensa to provide ‘security’ around the oil infrastructure, through a secret agreement with the Columbian defence ministry. He made it out alive, but thousands of others did not, including his friend and fellow union activist Auri Sara Marrugo [8, 9, 10]. Sr Torres is now taking BP to court for their involvement in his torture. Gilberto leant his support to the action on Saturday, allowing us to use his image and quotes.

BP uses the Portrait Award, and its sponsorship of institutions such as the Edinburgh International Festival, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, Royal Shakespeare Company and the Tate, to gain much-needed legitimacy. By weaving itself into the fabric of British cultural life, BP believes it can portray itself as a caring and responsible company, whilst continuing with the appalling practices outlined above. Unfortunately it works;  According to market research, 38% of people who had been exposed to BP’s Olympic sponsorship now believe that BP is working towards a cleaner planet [11]. However, we and many others feel that oil sponsorship taints arts and culture. As one of our members, local artist Karen Bates, put it:

“BP simply contaminates the environment, the art, the artists’ names and the institutions that associate themselves with the fossil fuel industry. I am sure there are hundreds of decent, ethical investors that would bring a more enlightened and respectable offer to the table… 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… In short, BP gives these awards and the galleries a bad name.”

Raoul Martinez, a three-times finalist in the BP Portrait Award, agrees. He leant support to our performance on Saturday, saying:

“’That some of the nations’s leading arts institutions are still accepting sponsorship from fossil fuel companies like BP is truly shameful. These corporations constitute one of the world’s deadliest industries…Their sponsorship buys them a source of cultural legitimacy that provides cover for these destructive activities. 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 fossil fuel companies. I have decided not to submit work to the National Portrait Gallery until they do this, and hope other artists will join me….The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has the opportunity to take the lead here and set an example for the rest of the country.”

BP is, in essence, parasitising on the institutions it sponsors; the company provides only 3% of the income of the National Portrait Gallery, and less than 1% of the income of the Royal Opera House, British Museum and the Tate [12], yet in return receives branding and vast amounts of good publicity.

The international community recently agreed that global warming must not climb above 2°C to avoid catastrophic climate change that would threaten millions of peoples’ lives and livelihoods. In the absence of decisive action from governments, public institutions should lead the way; city councils, universities, pension funds and individuals have all recently been breaking off financial links with oil companies. It is time for arts and cultural institutions to do the same. There are multiple campaigns around the country calling for an end to oil sponsorship deals, and indeed in Edinburgh, staff from the Edinburgh International Festival are calling on the Director to drop the Festival’s sponsorship deal with BP [13].

In the past, the National Portrait Gallery showed moral leadership by dropping tobacco company John Player as sponsor of the Portrait Awards in 1980, long before tobacco advertising was banned. We do not know exactly what powers you have, but we would strongly urge you to take a stand on this issue, by refusing to exhibit the Portrait Awards again unless a truly environmentally sustainable and ethical company replaces BP as sponsor. We also urge you to engage with the National Portrait Gallery in London and ask them to not renew the five-year sponsorship deal they currently have with BP. A petition has been started calling for the above which we intend to deliver to you shortly.

We would greatly appreciate the opportunity to begin a dialogue with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on this issue. We would like to know whether the management have considered this issue, whether they have any plans to stop hosting the BP Portrait Awards, and whether they might consider this now. We would be happy to provide more information about the environmental destruction and human rights abuses to which BP is a major contributor.

We hope you managed to see some of the performance on Saturday, which was peaceful and carried out in a spirit of creativity. If not, you are welcome to view it at bp-or-not-bp.org.uk/scotland, or on our Facebook group (facebook.com/NoBPFundingScotland). You may also like to view the press coverage of the performance:

The Herald (27th Feb):

Sunday Herald (Sun 28th Feb, including print edition):

Evening Express (Aberdeen, 27th Feb):

Scotland on Sunday (28th Feb): “Protest at Gallery over oil giant’s sponsorship” p3, print edition.

CommonSpace (29th Feb): https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/3566/environmental-activists-target-bp-sponsorship-of-edinburgh-arts-award

Finally, we would like to thank the Gallery and its staff for respecting our right to express our opinions in a peaceful manner.

Yours sincerely,

Claire Robertson
Amanda Grimm
Justina Stonyte
Tomas Sheridan
Matthew Crighton
Kirby Fullerton
John Thorne
David Somervell
And the other members of “BP or not BP Scotland”


1. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719?page=2

2. http://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/sustainability/group-reports/BP_Sustainability_Review_2012.pdf

3. http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/picturethis/

4. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2010/may/02/bp-deepwater-horizon-oil-spills

5. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/21/bp-tops-the-list-of-firms-obstructing-climate-action-in-europe

6. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/dec/21/bp-axe-solar-power-business

7. http://business-humanrights.org/en/us-deepwater-horizon-explosion-oil-spill-lawsuits

8. http://www.theguardian.com/world/1998/oct/17/1

9. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/22/gilberto-torres-survived-colombias-death-squads-now-he-wants-justice

10. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/24/colombia-oilo-wars–kidnapped-chained-and-blindfolded-i-cant-go-bac-gilberto-torres

11. http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/article/1117665/bps-brand-image-benefits-london-2012-sponsorship-claims-research

12. http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/artoilinfographic/

13. http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13596693.Protest_against_BP_Edinburgh_International_Festival_sponsorship_to_take_place/

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