Sponsorship of the "BP Portrait Award" competition has ended

Sponsorship of the “BP Portrait Award” competition has ended

One of the most prestigious portrait competitions in the world – held at the National Portrait Gallery in London – is no more.  Below I cover:

  • the announcements to date about the BP Portrait Award
  • announcements about the future of “a portrait award” competition
  • thoughts about some of the issues any future portrait award should address

Tomorrow’s post will be about Winners to date of The Portrait Award organised by the NPG – plus links to the commissions and my reviews plus photos and videos taken by me.

In summary, the position is:

  • BP will have no further involvement in the sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery – which given the various well publicised assaults on various galleries of late comes as no surprise to me.
  • The National Portrait Gallery:
    • plan to continue with some form of award 
    • are currently “thinking about it” – in terms of activities supporting their future strategy; and 
    • hope to make an announcement  at some point in 2023.

Video of the last major protest about BP Sponsorship
at 4:15pm, on the last day of the 2019 BP Portrait Award exhibition 

at the National Portrait Gallery.

The BP Portrait Award: The Announcement

 In the aftermath of my surgery, I missed the announcement back in
February 2022, that 

bp and the National Portrait Gallery have together confirmed that
their partnership will not extend beyond December 2022, when their
current contract comes to an end. 

Throughout the partnership, which spans more than 30 years, bp’s support of the Gallery’s Portrait Award, one of the longest running cultural events in London, has enabled more than six million visitors to enjoy free admission to the exhibition and contributed to the career development of more than 1,500 portrait artists, from aspiring young painters to established professionals. bp and the National Portrait Gallery announce end of

This was followed by reports in various journals

The oil and gas company has sponsored the London institution’s BP Portrait Award since 1989, but the partnership has come under increasing pressure in recent years following campaigns to end fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and culture.

In 2019, the artist Gary Hume resigned from the award’s judging panel over the issue, and a blockade by the anti-oil activist group BP or not BP? forced guests to climb over a wall to enter the awards ceremony. Eighty leading artists subsequently signed a letter calling on the gallery to cut ties with BP.

In 2020 the gallery confirmed that there would be no BP representative on the judging panel that year. The BP Portrait Award is not being staged in 2021 and 2022 while the National Portrait Gallery’s building is closed for redevelopment.

On the BP Portrait Award website (2020), there is a low key announcement

The National Portrait Gallery and BP have together confirmed that
the current sponsorship of the BP Portrait Award will not be
extended beyond December 2022, when the current contract comes to an
Update 2022

The statement also makes clear

  • there is no BP Portrait Award in 2022
  • the NPG is currently considering options for the Portrait Award
    following the re-opening of the Gallery in 2023 and beyond.
  • the NPG looks forward to developing the future Portrait Award
  • you can sign up for our emails and follow us on social media for the latest updates and
    information on how to get involved.

My expectation is that the announcement will come in the second half
of the year – AFTER
the National Portrait Gallery reopens to the public on 23 June
following the most significant redevelopment in its history.

What sort of portrait award?

The need for change

My guess is they will 

  • launch a new version of the Portrait award as part of the celebration of the new Gallery re-opening in 2023
  • BP will be “retired” as the patron/sponsor 
  • recruit / entice another more appropriate sponsor will be found for the exhibition. Ideally one which 
    • offends nobody in relation to environmental, cultural or ethical matters.
    • complies with the currently non-existent policy on Sustainability!!! (i.e. the ability to exist constantly) as well as any other relevant policies such as the Equality and Diversity policy 

No BP Portrait Award in 2021 and 2022 | Making A Mark 24 September 2020

One key issue the NPG will need to address relates to space allocated and revenue generation:

  • should a “free to enter” Portrait Award Exhibition have more space than a paying exhibition? ie 
    • latterly the Exhibition was moved out of the largest gallery into a smaller gallery – and to my mind the hang very much suffered as a result – and when crowded, viewing was very difficult;
    • I was told that the income generating exhibitions had to take priority over the popular ones (however given the faulty practices the NPG experienced re collection of statistics, that’s maybe a notion that should be revisited)
    • by way of contrast the major exhibitions which then occupied the larger gallery space always seemed to be almost deserted when I visited
  • should it be a paying exhibition?

I’m more interested in thinking behind the SCOPE of the competition which I think needs a really radical rethink

Two assertions are made which I think need challenging i.e. that this portrait competition is


  • Is this still a prestigious exhibition – and if not what it was, what needs to change?
    • What, in particular, makes this competition distinctive?
    • Should the number selected go back to the 60 originally agreed and maintained for many years – prior to the reduction in recent years
  • Should it be limited in any way? e.g.
    • Should it be national or international?
    • Should it be limited to Young Artists only on a periodic basis (say) every other year?
    • Should international artists be limited to no more than 50% or some other percentage (given the tendency in recent years for international artists to predominate – which does little to support portrait artists in the UK!)
    • Should the Travel Award continue?
  • Should it support the development of a cadre of artists who can be commissioned to paint portraits for the National Portrait Gallery (i.e. its original purpose!)
  • Should it widen the media considered acceptable?  
    • i.e. given the scope to produce work in other media in other prestigious portrait competitions around the world
    • Should it include drawings as well as paintings – to reflect the collection of the NPG (e.g. see the drawings of past winner Stuart Pearson Wright)
  • Should there be a focus on portraits of Groups or Teams or Families of important people  – something which features significantly in the NPG’s own collection but not in portraits submitted to the competition in the past.
  • Should it include awards to recognise the “national” in National Portrait Gallery? 
    • e.g. awards for artists from Scotland; Wales; NI (and Ireland?); North of England; Midlands; South West and South East.

The latter in particular provides scope for collaborative links to other art galleries in Great Britain – highlighting local artists who did well by being selected for the The Portrait Award Exhibition – and exhibiting their portraits.

If you want to send me your thoughts I’m happy to make representations to the NPG…..

TOMORROW: I’m listing all the winners of the Portrait Award

  • organised by the National Portrait Gallery
  • sponsored – since 1980 – by Imperial Tobacco, John Player & Sons and BP

AND providing links to 

  • their commissioned portraits and 
  • where you can find them now.