The National Portrait Gallery in London (NPG) is facing scrutiny from climate activists for accepting a sponsorship from a major law firm that has represented corporations linked to fossil fuels. The criticism comes several months after the museum ended its controversial 30-year partnership with the oil giant British Petroleum (BP).
In February 2022, when the museum ended its partnership with BP, it also ended the company’s long-running backing of the London museum’s prestigious Portrait Award, an annual prize that recognizes a contemporary artist’s portraiture.
The Guardian reported that the London gallery’s leadership has tapped the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills as the prize’s new sponsor. The prize, for which the artist recipient receives £35,000, will be renamed the Herbert Smith Freehills Portrait Award.
The legal firm, which has locations internationally, oversees an energy division that has represented the oil giant British Petroleum (BP), Chevron, and the China National Petroleum Corporation in acquisitions deals.
The museum’s decision to sever ties with BP in February 2022 followed rising pressure from climate advocates calling on major cultural institutions to divest from fossil fuels and criticism that the oil company’s historical with British Museums helped the company “green wash” its public profile. In 2020, BP withdrew from the portrait prize’s judging panel after climate campaigners criticized its presence in cultural spaces as a form of reputation laundering.
The director of the National Portrait Gallery, Nicholas Cullinan, has defended the new partnership, arguing that the museum is under pressure to secure corporate funding at a scale that ensures its operations and initiatives can continue. The UK-based climate activist group, Culture Sustained, which was central in campaigning for the British Museum and National Gallery to end their deals with BP, has argued that defense has been reevaluated among museum leaders in recent years.
The UK government has given increased attention to the concerns of museum leaders and trustees on fundraising risks. A 2017 report on fundraising at UK institutions noted that museums overseen by the UKs Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DSMS) face “increased” scrutiny over fundraising and considered the impact of “high-risk” donations. The audit suggested museum leaders in the UK consider “whether the source [of funding] implied any conflict of interest with the entity’s charitable objectives.” The report listed the tobacco industry and arms trade as sectors that have high conflicts of interest with the “charitable initiatives” of museums.
Representatives of the environmental advocacy groups XR (Extinction Rebellion) and Culture Sustained have been critical of the gallery’s move, which they argue effectively swapped one large-scale corporate actor active in safeguarding interests in the fossil fuels industry for another. In 2016, the law firm played a role in advising BP on investments in Mauritania and Senegal through a $1 billion deal with Kosmos Energy. The deal marked the oil company’s move towards establishing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) hub in West Africa.
A representative for Herbert Smith Freehills did not immediately respond to ARTnews request for comment.
The National Portrait Gallery is not the only museum that the legal firm has funded. According to the firm’s website, it has corporate sponsorship deals with the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney) and Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The latter, a privately-run museum centered on contemporary art, has pledged climate-related commitments in recent years and runs a satellite initiative, TBA21-Academy, which focuses on environmental issues.