Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Should artists use prize money to protest against the sponsor of an art competition?

Here's an ethical conundrum for artists.
  • Can you protest against those sponsoring art competitions - after you've taken the prize money? 
  • Or should you not enter in the first place if you object to the sponsor?

Henry Christian-Slane collecting his award and his cheque for £7,000 from Bob Dudley, CEO of BP
In June, Henry Christian-Slane won the BP Young Artist Award and received a cheque for £7,000.

Last Friday The Guardian:
These follow on from a Greenpeace interview with him This artist is donating part of his BP prize money to fight climate change that includes very specific criticism of a number of issues including a new proposal by BP to drill near to a newly discovered coral reef.
Last month, at London’s National Portrait Gallery, I was presented with the BP Young Artist Award, by BP’s CEO, Bob Dudley. It’s a prestigious award, and I was happy to receive it, but I’m not happy about being part of BP’s PR strategy. And so as a symbolic act I am donating £1000 of their prize money directly to Greenpeace projects that aim to protest BP’s further extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth. I hope this action will help keep the issue of BP’s role in climate change from being overshadowed by their contribution to the arts.

I think it is an important role of artists to represent and be critical of the context they find themselves in, regardless of where funding comes from. Art should not be a passive PR tool used by corporations to carry their name and logo. I feel it is my responsibility as an artist involved with the portrait award to voice my criticism of BP and I hope the other exhibitors and award winners agree with me.
Apparently he likes having the title of  "Young Artist of the Year", which doubtless will do his career no harm, but he doesn't like the actions of the sponsor of the awards

I was genuinely puzzled when I read this - it seemed to me to be very odd.

I would have thought that anybody who felt that strongly about the actions of BP would never have entered the competition in the first place - on principle.

I came up with a number of explanations
  • Maybe this sentiment only arose after criticism from family and/or friends and/or the public - and that's why he now needs to make this announcement?
  • Maybe it's being photographed next to Bob Dudley with an award with the BP logo on it that caused the change of mind?
  • Maybe it's BP's latest proposal to drill next to the coral reef? (Incidentally, this is the Greenpeace link to Join the campaign to protect the Amazon Reef from BP drilling.)
I did a little bit of digging on his Facebook and Instagram accounts and it turns out there is no question Henry Christian-Slane really is an eco-warrior (see Instagram post below).  His other Instagram posts suggest he cares a very great deal about reef systems - so maybe the last suggested explanation was in fact the trigger for his donation.

The question his actions poses for me is "Do other artists who entered or were selected for the BP Portrait Award agree with him and his actions? "

I don't suppose any of the artists who entered are great proponents of global warming.

If that's the case, why did they enter the competition?

Sponsorship of the Arts - and BP

Demonstration against BP's funding of the BP Portrait Award
outside the National Portrait Gallery 22 June 2010
I've written about BP's sponsorship of the Arts and the various views taken about it on a number of occasions:
The major difference between when I started writing about art funding generally and now is the huge cut in public funding for the arts in general and art in particular over the past few years (it must be at least 25% if not more)

We're now living in an age where sponsorship by major corporate bodies or very rich individuals (and how did they get their money?) is absolutely essential to the well-being of art collections, art galleries and museums and art competitions.

My view is clear - as stated back in 2015.
I'll state my case up front. I really am not in the least bit bothered by BP's sponsorship of art galleries and museums. I'm far more concerned about:
  • fossil fuel companies behaving in a social responsible manner 
  • those trying to repair their reputation paying a fair price to society for the privilege of being associated with a prestigious art gallery or museum which only exists due to generous state support.
Of course I'd rather that energy sources came from renewable sources. However until somebody makes energy consumption from non-fossil fuel a cost effective and efficient proposition for most of the companies and families in the UK (and elsewhere) I don't see much alternative to the continued use of fossil fuels.

That in turn means oil companies will be looking for ways of sanitising their image - and offers a wonderful opportunity for sponsorship - so long as this is at the right price.

What do you think

Are all artists eco-warriors? Should they be?

Do other artists who entered (or thought about entering) or were selected for the BP Portrait Award agree with Henry Christian-Slane and his actions?
I'll also restate the questions I asked back in 2014
here's some questions to ponder on:
  • Should BP be sponsoring the Arts in this country - and why (or why not)?
  • Do you think exhibitions/competitions etc would suffer if BP funding was no longer available?
  • Do you think another company would fill the gap if BP no longer funded art?
  • Do you think any substitute sponsor would be better or worse than BP?
It's worth thinking about what the alternative might be. For example - supposing a Russian Oligarch whose money was generated by the oil industry were to invest in improving his profile in this country, might we be back at where we came in - or worse?
Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below. I'm really interested - and it's a question which is not going to go away....

This is what Jonathan Jones thinks - after reminding us all that the first sponsor of the Portrait award was John Player - the tobacco company!
It seems it’s always the controversial businesses that spend on the arts – the saintly ones don’t crave the publicity. Today it would be unimaginable for museums to take tobacco money. Perhaps museums need to find the next sponsors who need to clean up a dodgy image – soft drinks giants, maybe?

About Henry Christian-Slane

Henry Christian-Slane looking rather pleased he's won the award
next to his portrait of his partner Gabi
Age: 26 (born 12 November 1990)

Nationality: New Zealand
Occupation: artist and illustrator
Current home:
Art education
studied graphic design at Auckland University of Technology.

Previous appearances in this award
Title / Media: Gabi (
Oil on board; 250 x 200mm)
Gabi is a portrait of Christian-Slane’s partner Gabi Lardies. The sitting took place at the artist’s parents’ house in Auckland, New Zealand. Christian-Slane liked how the light fell over the sitter’s face and the contemplative but slightly frowning expression that resulted, which he tried to preserve throughout the painting process. The artist was aware of the difficulties of painting a portrait of someone he is so close to. Although confident that he had had an innate sense of her face and features, he was conscious of bias that couples have of each other's appearance; ‘For me I think what resulted is a painting that balances being analytical and instinctual’ says Christian-Slane.

A post shared by Henry Christian-Slane (@henrychristianslane) on


  1. For artists, the fundamental concern here is the recognition given through showing work in this competition and what success is granted to the career of the winner.

    Perhaps it might be perfectly acceptable to continue the BP award without any prize money being involved?

    The artist, the competition, and the funding structure are not separate issues. They are all connected, and this on some level has to be reconciled, one way or another, both individually and collectively.

    The matrix of this dilemma is absolutely everywhere: The bigger issue of the BP Award reflects an everyday contemporary tension - artists who sell their work do not ask every buyer how they acquire their income to buy the artwork, because this would be absolutely crazy.

    Correspondingly, and ultimately, the people who do not like the way the portrait award is funded can simply step away from it. If everyone stepped back, the competition would cease to exist. This is unlikely to happen, and if it did it would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    What is likely to happen is that the tide of public opinion will continue to create inevitable pressure from the outside, which will create changes for the better in this type of award, which will again reflect onto other means of funding to the arts.

  2. Hi
    Taking the prize money and passing it directly to Greenpeace was the correct thing to do. He has got us all noticing and commenting. It puts pressue on BP and it is good for Greeenpeace The money is going to be put to good use. He has gained satus in the art world and his career will benifit from having won. A perfect outcome!

  3. To make a bigger impact he should have donated ALL of his prize-winning money to Greenpeace!

  4. As you imply in your post Katherine, what has occurred here is a kind of mixed message.

    Does the artist support Greenpeace in a whole-hearted way or is he perhaps trying to please two masters? By giving only part of the money away the message is that he is trying to please both Greenpeace and BP.

    I wonder if perhaps he made a compromise through pressure that was upon him from both sides?
    I wonder if this is what he will be remembered for, rather than for the content of his art work.

  5. I think it was a clever move by the artist. BP and the NPG are under pressure now. BP again becomes noticed as a destroyer of environment and the NPG has to justify the ongoing sponsorship by BP. From my point of view sponsorship by BP has to come to an end and those who are called on the board of the jury need to promote the change to another sponsor.

  6. @Papierflieger

    So would you be content for the exhibition to also end if the sponsorship finished?

    It's a very prestigious exhibition and one would hope there might be other potential sponsors who can find a connection between their product and the subject of the exhibition - but there aren't many who have the funds to provide consistent and significant funding over many years - as BP has provided.

  7. Hi Katherine,

    I think the scenario you propose is not realistic. I am sure there will be enough other companies that would love to take over such a prestigious sponsorship.

    best regards

  8. Maybe - but would they stay the course. I've seen a LOT of competitions lose their sponsorship after two to three years. Major art competitions need sponsors who are there for the long haul - otherwise it increases overheads associated with seeking new sponsors and rebranding


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