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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

National Portrait Gallery criticised over choice of sponsor to replace BP

Woman looking at art in the Blavatnik Wing at the National Portrait Gallery
The Blavatnik Wing at the National Portrait Gallery. The gallery’s £35,000 portrait prize will become the Herbert Smith Freehills award. Photograph: Jim Stephenson

Climate campaigners have accused the National Portrait Gallery of “jumping out of the reputational frying pan straight into the reputational fire” after it announced its replacement sponsor for BP is a law firm that has represented the fossil fuel company.

The gallery said last year it was ending its 30-year partnership with BP after a lengthy campaign against its relationship with the oil and gas company. On Monday, it announced that the new sponsor for its portrait prize, one of the UK’s most prestigious art prizes, formerly known as the BP portrait award, would be Herbert Smith Freehills.

The City law firm has an oil and gas team with clients including publicly listed energy companies, national oil companies, trading companies and private equity firms.

Fossil fuel producers listed as clients on its website include Chevron, China National Petroleum Corporation and BP. It advised BP on a $1bn (£800m) deal to acquire interests in offshore gas exploration blocks in Mauritania and Senegal.

Chris Garrard, a co-director of Culture Unstained, said: “To end your sponsorship deal with BP – a major producer of new oil and gas – only to then replace it with a law firm that has actively enabled BP and others to produce more fossil fuels is a complete climate fail.

“There is a stark difference between accepting ethical private funding for public benefit and here, where a national cultural institution is taking tainted money from an enabler of the fossil fuel industry and then helping to ‘artwash’ its image.

“In recent years, the cultural sector has shown real leadership in cutting ties to major polluters such as BP and Shell but now our ‘red lines’ must be robust enough to ensure that we don’t leave loopholes for those that are also embedded into their destructive business plans.”

In an interview with the Times, the gallery’s director, Nicholas Cullinan, said the museum had red lines over who it would accept money from, but museums could not afford to be activists and it was difficult to find law firms or banks without links to fossil fuels.

The replacement of BP with Herbert Smith Freehills echoes a similar move by the Southbank Centre. Its relationship with Shell ended in 2020 but one of its listed partners is Eversheds Sutherland, which served as lead counsel for BP’s drilling contractor after the Deepwater Horizon spill and is also on the legal panel for Shell.

Highlighting Herbert Smith Freehills’ work for Bank of America, a major fossil fuel funder, as well as that for BP, Joanna Warrington, of Fossil Free London, said the gallery was “jumping out of the reputational frying pan straight into the reputational fire. The heat’s still on. We need dangerous fossil fuels, including all industries that make them possible, out of our society and culture, from the banks that fund new projects to the lawyers that defend them in court.”

Referring to the campaign against BP’s sponsorship of the gallery, an XR spokesperson said: “They appear to have learned nothing from that shaming experience. By taking money from Herbert Smith Freehills, a law firm that advises oil and gas clients, the National Portrait Gallery is helping to clean up the reputation of the lethal fossil fuel industry.”

The £35,000 portrait prize will become the Herbert Smith Freehills award. Because of the redevelopment of the gallery it has not been held since 2020 when BP was dropped from the judging panel of the award for the first time since 1997.

A spokesperson for the gallery said: “As a charity, part-funded by government, which has to raise 70% of the funds needed to run the gallery, we actively seek sponsorships and corporate funding to support our core activities, including exhibitions and programmes.”

They said Herbert Smith Freehills had been a supporter for 20 years and the sponsorship meant the portrait award competition would remain free to visit.

Herbert Smith Freehills has been approached for comment.

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