British Petroleum took over sponsorship of the competition in 1989 from John Player & Sons, a tobacco company which had sponsored it from its inception in 1980, and has sponsored it since. The presence of both sponsors has triggered protests, with the group Art Not Oil (part of the international Rising Tide network) being responsible for most of those against BP. In 2016, The Museums Association conducted a formal investigation into BP's sponsorship when Art Not Oil alleged that the company influenced curatorial decisions and used its association with the National Gallery to further its political interests both domestic and international.
The exhibition opens in June each year and runs until September. First prize is typically £30,000. In the early years of the century, the prize went up from £5,000, and its catchment area was gradually extended from residents of the UK and is now unrestricted.
In 1993, Tom Hallifax was used to advertise the awards.
It has become a BP Portrait Awards convention that a single work is selected to be used prominently on that year's posters and other publicity materials, and for the cover of the year's exhibition catalogue. Recent "showcase" portraits include: