Northern Ireland

Ulster Museum to host BP Portrait exhibition despite climate fears

Imara in her Winter Coat Image copyright Charlie Schaffer
Image caption This year's winner - Imara in her Winter Coat by Charlie Schaffer

The Ulster Museum is still planning to host the BP Portrait Award touring exhibition despite a gallery in Edinburgh backing out over climate emergency fears.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has announced it will no longer stage the event sponsored by oil giant BP.

It follows a campaign backed by high-profile artists opposed to BP's role.

The exhibition, which is held in London but then moves to Scotland and NI, is due to open in Belfast in April.

The portraits exhibition first came to Belfast's Ulster Museum in 2016 and proved extremely popular, attracting more than 27,000 visitors.

BP has sponsored the London National Gallery's annual Portrait Award for 30 years, but the oil company has faced growing criticism over its environmental position.

National Galleries Scotland acknowledged that "for many people, the association of this competition with BP is seen as being at odds" with its aim to help tackle climate change.

A spokesperson for National Museums NI said it appreciated "that the climate emergency has escalated and we acknowledge our role as a national museum in helping to address it".

"Whilst we are, at this stage, committed to the exhibition planned for April 2020, we will be using it as an opportunity to engage with our visitors about their views on ethical sponsorship within the museum sector.

"Like all museums, we take ethical considerations very seriously. Following the exhibition, we will be taking the opportunity to critically review whether to host the Portrait Award exhibition again in the future."

A BP spokesperson said: "The increasing polarisation of debate and attempts to exclude companies committed to being a part of the energy transition is exactly what is not needed."

'Do all we can do'

National Galleries Scotland said it recognised "the need to do all we can to address the climate emergency".

"This will be the last time that the galleries will host this exhibition in its present form," it continued.

"The exhibition has been extremely popular with new and existing visitors over the years."

A number of high-profile figures - including actor Mark Rylance and sculptor Antony Gormley - have added their voices to the protest against the oil giant's sponsorship of the arts in the United Kingdom.

In October, the Royal Shakespeare Company ended its partnership with BP.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Actor Mark Rylance resigned from the RSC over BP sponsorship

The National Portrait Gallery said BP's support "enables free admission for the public".

The London venue said: "We respect the National Galleries of Scotland's decision and we are grateful for all the support they've given to the award over the years."

Brighton-based artist Charlie Schaffer won this year's £35,000 first prize for his portrait Imara In Her Winter Coat, of his close friend wearing a fake fur coat.

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