The BP Portrait Award: time for an oil change?

Jim Crawley considers whether the BP Portrait Award 2019 has run its course

The BP Portrait Award 2019 recently shut its doors at the National Portrait Gallery for the last time this year and is now on its way around the country. This show is one of the year’s set pieces for me, somewhere to spend a pleasant hour away from the summer’s crowds. But this year was thin fare and the show has become increasingly hesitant, so now seems a good time to consider whether the BP Portrait Award has run its course.

The first question is of course about BP’s sponsorship.   The issue of corporate funding for the arts is generating many headlines at the moment but the issue comes down to a clash between good ends and bad means. BP has sponsored the award for 30 years and puts up the prize money that this year amounted to £74,000. With only a third of their income now coming from public funding, the NPG argues it needs the security of long-term support from other sources including big business so that it can plan its programming in advance. They argue too that BP’s sponsorship encourages the work of talented artists and allows the gallery to provide free admission to the quarter of a million people that visit the show each year in London alone. The counter argument can be simply put: all access to the arts is compromised if the source of funding is thought to be unethical. Proponents of this view argue that BP is attempting to ‘greenwash’ its image to obscure the company’s role in creating climate change. 

Opinion seems to be turning against the NPG. The National Gallery severed its relationship with Shell in 2018, while the British Museum has been occupied several times over its continued relationship with BP which protestors claim makes it ‘complicit in the unfolding climate disaster’. Just last month, the Royal Shakespeare Company ended its own sponsorship deal with BP that provided cheap theatre tickets to 16-25 year olds four years early, citing the ‘climate emergency’ and ‘the strength of feeling among young theatregoers’. In May, an open letter to Nicholas Cullinan, the NPG’s Director, demanding the gallery stop accepting funding from BP was signed by 78 major British artists including Anish Kapoor and Rachel Whiteread. Meanwhile in June, Gary Hume, one of this year’s judges, called BP’s sponsorship ‘problematic’. Most damagingly, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery announced last week that after hosting the Portrait Award for the last ten years, this year’s show due to open on 7th December will be the last time it will do so.

Last year’s stand-out painting: An Angel at my Table by Miriam Escofet (2017)

Perhaps in response to this pressure, it’s easy to get the impression that the NPG is becoming increasingly equivocal about the Portrait Award. Last year, it moved the show from the prestigious Lerner Gallery at the heart of the NPG building to the Porter Gallery which, being outside the main gallery doors, feels virtually on Charing Cross Road. This smacks of the NPG having its cake and eating it, as the move allowed them to put on a ticketed show in the Lerner Gallery during peak summer months while still pocketing BP’s sponsorship money. Worse still, the Porter Gallery is a cramped, badly lit space, maybe half the size of the spacious Lerner Gallery. The NPG has only slightly reduced the number of pictures in the show (55 in 2017 and 44 this year) so the paintings are crammed too close together like a village art show, while visitors jostle for enough space to view them.

Cramped, crowded and badly lit: moving the Award to the Porter Gallery has not been a success

All this might count for less if the art was first rate but it isn’t.  The NPG received 2,538 entries from 84 countries for this year’s Award, but quantity is clearly no guarantee of quality. Unlike last year, there’s no stand-out painting. This year’s winner, Imara in Her Winter Coat by Charlie Schaffer, is a competent but dull painting of a young woman of colour with mental health issues. Which is undoubtedly a worthy, contemporary subject to capture but the painting fails to engage and is indistinguishable from many others that crowded the walls of this year’s show. The choice of this and the other winners felt random. The judges don’t help either by being willing to extend the definition of ‘portrait’ indefinitely. Last year’s second place went to Time Traveller, Matthew Napping by Felicia Forte, which featured a figure lying in bed with his face buried in the pillows. The judges no doubt feel it important to recognize innovative work that acknowledges the elasticity of portraiture but not rendering the sitter’s face seems to undermine the essence of the discipline and the point of the Award itself.

Competent but dull and unengaging: Imara in Her Winter Coat by Charlie Schaffer (2019)

This Award then may have run its course. The other major arts institutions including the NPG’s partner in Scotland are increasingly refusing sponsorship from BP. The NPG’s treatment of the show is equivocal and lacks confidence, while the paintings in the show are mediocre and the winners seemingly chosen at random. Time to move on!  

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