And the Winner is...

Image: ‘My Labour is My Protest’, Theaster Gates, 2012

As the Turner Prize 2014 enters its second week, researcher Anthony Elliott considers art prizes today.


The 18th century beginnings of today's art prize seem to linger on. They reverberate in the brilliant white corridors of modern galleries, nestle between the lines of promotional fliers, and lilt behind the simultaneously optimistic and cynical eyes of all of us working in the arts.

What is now The Royal Society of the Arts, was originally The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce, and Manufactures in Great Britain. It was this vanguard of forthright academics, who instituted the modern art prize in Britain. Original prizes rewarded advances in economic performance, such as producing new dyes for cloth or greater efficiency in growing tree plantations. These were soon followed by prizes for the most promising child artists and sculptors1. And these followed by more and more prizes for more and more categories of art and artist. In the process, the Society reified their own authority, championed achievements which offered the most economic gain, and lead a PR campaign for Britain’s self-perceived cultural eminence.

Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, there is a thriving ecosystem of competitions in the arts. The total numbers are hard to count. The scene is bustling with variety; judges and artists, sponsors and hosts, intertwining and growing off one another. In inauspicious corners, trophies have unfurled their handles.

The Turner Prize
To try and navigate this terrain, I spoke to Helen Legg, Director of Spike Island in Bristol, and a judge for this year’s Turner Prize. ‘Even more interesting than the prize itself, is the shortlist’ says Legg. ‘Shortlists provoke debate which is really healthy for the arts. It gives the opportunity for a temperature check, to assess different ebbs and flows in what’s happening’. In different years, the shortlist may shift the focus to different art forms, different artist backgrounds or different issues - and if it doesn’t the debate certainly will.      

The Turner Prize has risen to the fore as the most prominent art prize in the UK. At the core of this success and its controversy are the multiple rewards it offers to three key agents in the arts sector; artists, public galleries, and private collectors. Above all, the prize acts as a way to bring attention to contemporary art. The debates which surround it draw us in, and every year get us to ask, Why have they been chosen? Who is going to win?

In 1984 it was founded to reward the greatest contribution to art in Britain during the previous 12 months. It was an initiative to help the public engage with contemporary art. For the untrained eye, it had become difficult to distinguish what was good and bad within a world which seemed to range from the profane to the sublime, with not much in between. More specifically, this event was intended to get people through the door of the Tate Gallery, thus proving its worth. As Thatcher’s massacre of everything public caused a drought in funding for museums and galleries, private investment was ready to step in.

Prizes and the Market
There is something of a love-hate relationship between the public and private agents in the Arts. The publics want prices to stay low so they can afford new acquisitions; the privates want prices to rise. The publics need additional cash; the privates need credibility. The publics want their art to have a value in society; the privates want their art to have a value in the bank. The prize manages to delicately negotiate these tensions.

In their ability to draw public attention to contemporary art, events like the Turner Prize do keep the market moving. Winners often seem to gain the additional prize of gallery representation - most likely with greater financial returns than the prize money itself. Initially, the jury consisted of the director of the Tate, a representative from the Patrons of New Art, a critic, a foreign curator and a director of a British institution (Nicholas Serota, now director of Tate, but then boss of the Whitechapel). Now the judges are almost always all from public institutions, and maintain a genuine commitment to practices which are both original and pertinent. As a judge not only for the Turner Prize, but also the Contemporary Art Society’s Museums Prize, Legg tells me that panel consensus is important - the panel has to agree or at least reach a majority vote. In this way the prize is not privy to one particular set of interests or subjective opinions.  

Three Types of Value
Particular as it is, The Turner Prize is an example from which we can learn several important things about art prizes in general.

First of all, a prize acts as a filter. Contemporary art is an enormous well of infinite ideas and sensations. Its complexity, its richness, its murky unarticulated thoughts, its gritty accidents and bubbling dreams coalesce into an oily thick sludge. There is just so much there. In its unrefined state, it is impossible to deal with. Judges and curators help us to see and understand of what is there.       

Secondly, once it is refined, art can become valuable. When we can engage with art, when we can appreciate it, we will demand it. As economist Richard Caves points out, 'the arts prize addresses the general problems of information and uncertainty in consumer choices... Prizes signal quality to consumers’2. While winning the Booker Prizes leads to an increase in the number of book sales, in the arts winning a prize can lead to an increase in value.

Thirdly, a prize can have less direct benefits. Suppose a town, or a country even, wants to demonstrate its significance - as a site of innovation or intellectual engagement. Suppose a new practice or industry wants to compare itself to established traditions. A prize offers a sample to the rest of the world to see what is going on. It says something more than just ‘these four people think this other person ought to have a bit of money for what they’re doing’. The single glittering word slips out so perfectly to say, ‘Something important is happening here’.  

Opening Doors
In the South West several arts prizes have gained increasing reputations over the last decade or so since they started. Exeter has the Contemporary Open; Portsmouth hosts the Emergency arts prize at Aspex Gallery; and just over the border Cardiff invites some of the world’s most significant artists to Wales for the Artes Mundi Prize. Probably most towns have a prize of some kind to recognise their local scene.

But I seem to be missing something. Or someone.

The artist! What about the artist? Where does all of this staging leave them? Don’t they benefit from an art prize?  

Well, sort of. The fact is art is never 100% independent of other interests. On some days the ways in which art is staged may feel like capitulation, and on others it is simply compromise.

Depending on the artist, and depending on the prize, artists may decline to compromise. Sarah Lucas is rumoured to have turned down Turner Prize nominations several times, and Santiago Sierra famously refused the Spanish National Prize for Visual Arts on the grounds that the prize 'exploits the prestige of its winner for the benefit of the State'3. Yet, compromise is OK. Actually it is unavoidable. We all compromise in our work. We don’t have a choice. Artists and galleries should not be held to a higher standard. Regardless of where it comes from, artists have every right to enjoy a toast of champagne and some recognition for all their hard work. Particularly since their unpaid work constitutes the largest subsidy of all to the ‘creative industries’. For an artist, winning a prize can be a moment of reprieve for all the years of poorly paid hard graft.

Having the endorsement of several judges does give credibility, and personal validation says Tim Machin, 2005 winner of the Emergency Prize. It also helps to have something clear and understandable in your artist bio. Machin related that the award of a solo show at Aspex Gallery, did open doors in his career, and he did sell more work as a result: ‘for a young artist, it can be the fastest way of making a name’.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that most artists would prefer a context which encourages cooperation and mutual support over one of competition and stratification. Useful though they may be, Helen Legg stressed that events like prizes and festivals cannot become the be all and end all of the arts. The routine daily contribution of cultural workers and organisations to society is absolutely vital and cannot be forgotten.

Advocacy and Activism
Artist or not, it is important that we are conscious of the environment in which we operate, we articulate how we want that environment to be, and we find ways to shape that environment while standing right in the middle of it. In this respect, many artists are truly deserving of commendation.

Ciara Phillips, 2014 Turner Prize nominee, has been described as an ‘activist’, while Duncan Campbell, another nominee, makes ‘controversial’4 films. One film is about Irish Socialist and Republican Bernadette Devlin. Their desire to challenge status quos is perhaps limited by their appropriation by the most powerful of our art establishments, but as artists they attain the cunning ability to raise questions even within those punctilious halls. This line has been trodden delicately and eloquently by American nominee for this year’s Artes Mundi Prize, Theaster Gates. In 2012, Gates’ exhibition at the Bermondsey White Cube in London was titled ‘My Labour is My Protest’. The show featured decommissioned fire trucks and hoses, used in the 60’s as water-cannons on Civil Rights protesters. It featured an entire library borrowed from Johnson Publishing Company which produced the first magazine dedicated African-American issues in Chicago. It featured reoccurring splodges of tar, referencing hot, dirty, noxious construction work done by Gates’ father, just to make a living. More than any other artist I can think of, Gates successfully negotiates the private sector (i.e. his labour) with a dedication to social critique (i.e. his protest).

Lets enjoy art prizes for what they are. There are winners in this game. Some win cash and some popularity. The game has been played a long time, and some have grown very good at playing. For anyone just joining the table, I would suggest taking a good look at the rule book before rolling the dice. Whenever possible, give newcomers an opportunity and explain the rules again, debate the finer details, work out who’s who, and call out the cheats. You may have to shout, or you may have to whisper. The first rule is that it’s never just about the art. Start with this one, and we may have a fighting chance of closing the gaps, forming new strategies and alliances, and perhaps finding new rewards altogether. 


Anthony Elliott is a researcher in the Arts and Social Sciences, living and working in Bristol. He recently worked on the mapping project Doing Things Separately Together currently on show at Arnolfini as part of The Promise. Earlier this year he took part in the Arts Writing workshop hosted by the Arvon Foundation and Visual Arts South West. 


1 Colley, L. (1992) Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. London. Pimlico. P.90
2 Caves, R. E. (2000) Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and Commerce. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. p.196
3 http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/cf061110.html
4 http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/turner-prize-2014


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