Eco protesters target BP portrait prize ceremony

LONDON (AP) – Environmental protesters demonstrated Tuesday outside a BP PLC-sponsored art awards ceremony, as a senior executive said the company deeply regretted the human and environmental tragedy caused by its huge Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

About a dozen demonstrators sporting white coveralls and surgical face masks and dubbing themselves the “Greenwash Guerrillas” distributed leaflets outside London’s National Portrait Gallery, where the 25,000 pound ($37,000) BP Portrait Award was being handed out.

Inside, Iain Conn, the company’s chief executive for refining and marketing, said the awards ceremony “comes at a very, very difficult time for BP.”

We are dealing with a tragedy both human and environmental,” he said.

He said the disaster was something “we regret very deeply” and vowed BP would make changes so that it never happened again.

The prize – open to artists of any nationality and sponsored by BP for more than 20 years – was won by 63-year-old English painter Daphne Todd for a portrait of her 100-year-old mother’s corpse on her deathbed.

Todd said BP’s support for the arts was “fantastic.”

I know they haven’t had a good press – they’ve had a bad press,” she said. “But they have been philanthropic, and where else is that money going to come from?”

But as millions of gallons of oil gush into the waters of the Gulf, protesters are intensifying their calls for arts bodies to stop taking money from BP because of the environmental and economic devastation it has caused.

Several U.S. musicians, including Lady Gaga and the band Korn, have said they will not use BP fuel on their tours this summer.

Sam Chase, of protest group Art Not Oil, said he wanted to see oil company sponsorship become as socially unacceptable as taking money from tobacco companies.

Arguably climate change and what’s happening in the Gulf is a great deal worse than what tobacco companies do, because they are threatening the survival of many species,” Chase said.

BP will not say how much it gives to the arts, but in Britain it is a major supporter of the British Museum, the Tate galleries, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery.

In a joint statement, those institutions praised BP for its “very significant contribution to the arts and cultural life of this country.”

We are grateful to BP for their long term commitment, sharing the vision that our artistic programs should be made available to the widest possible audience,” the statement said.

BP says it remains committed to arts sponsorship, despite the spiraling cost of the Gulf disaster.

It’s not huge amounts of money from our point of view, but for institutions like this it is very important,” said Steve Westwell, BP’s chief of staff.

BP shares have lost almost half their value since the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, and the company says it has spent $2 billion fighting the spill and compensating victims. Under pressure from the U.S. government, it also agreed to set up a $20 billion compensation fund.

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