Turner Prize: British Artists Only

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The Turner Prize is named after British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), one of the most innovative and controversial artists in his days, who expressed a wish to establish a prize for young artists. His radical approach to art, inspired the initiative – signed by the Patrons of New Art (benefactors associated with the Tate Gallery) under the direction of Alan Bowness – for the establishment, in 1984, of one of the most significant visual arts awards in the world, with the aim of promoting public debate around new developments in contemporary British art and assisting Tate in the acquirement of new art.

For most of the 20th century, London and British art had a relatively low profile in the art world. In addition, with the Thatcher administration reducing budget expenditures in 1979, the Tate was left with little autonomy in the market. Initially, only experts familiar with the art world were allowed into Prize discussions: early nominees had established reputation, and the award ceremony was yet to be broadcast on tv. Therefore, at the beginning, the Turner Prize was not as organised as it became later on. Between 1991 and 1999, a stable jury composition, a new exhibition space and younger artists made it possible for the prize to gain increasing media coverage, entering the mainstream culture and thus leading by example for a number of prizes.

The winner of the Turner Prize receives £25.000, while the three other short-listed candidates get £5.000 each; among notable winners: Hirst, Gilbert & George, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen, Wolfgang Tillmans, Grayson Perry, and Richard Wright.

This year, the winner will be announced live on the BBC on December 1st, 2021, and presented by a celebrity: among previous presenters are Richard Attenborough, Paul Smith, Nick Cave, Yoko Ono, Mario Testino and Madonna.

A new independent panel of judges is selected every year; its members may include gallery directors, curators, critics and writers. At least one of the individuals listed is from abroad, to ensure the examination of British art from an objective, broader perspective. The jury isn’t paid but gets a small amount to cover expenses. The 2021 jury, chaired by the Director of Tate Britain Alex Farquharson, is composed by:

  • Aaron Cezar, Director, Delfina Foundation
  • Kim McAleese, Programme Director of Grand Union
  • Russell Tovey, Actor
  • Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery.

Setting parameters in order to establish the ‘best’ could be seen as arbitrary, in spite of being the natural mechanism of formation of that canon which allows cultural production to be directed (and re-directed) over time. The Turner Prize was intended to involve the general public, and to create a taste. Nevertheless, selection criteria, together with the strict selection process, were frequently criticized: to name a few prime examples, in 1991 the annual short list was limited to four nominees under the age of 50, as the prize focuses on the latest developments in British art rather than a lifetime’s career (age limitations were lifted in 2017, as artists can experience a breakthrough in their work at any age); again in the 1990s, several members of the emerging Young British Artist movement divided the public over the provocative works they showcased at Tate.

Every other year, a venue outside Tate Britain is chosen to host the prize. This year, the exhibition is taking place at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry; what’s new is that, despite its traditional celebration of individual artists since its foundation, this time the Prize will be devoted to collectives pursuing social benefits through their art. It could be said that a precedent took place in 2019, when artists rejected to compete and declared themselves a single collective, forcing judges to share the prize; moreover, the following year bursaries replaced the prize, in the middle of covid-19 pandemic. 

Will the institution be able to maintain its quality, without depreciating in a mere trend? We’ll see, let’s not forget that its being “general-public-friendly” is precisely what made it pleasing to a broader audience, thus creating the narratives that the market takes advantage of, and then transforms into value.

di Camilla Traldi

Other resources:

https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/making-sense-art-history/content-section-2

https://turnercontemporary.org/whats-on/turner-prize-2019/#about-the-turner-prize

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/03/the-guardian-view-on-the-turner-prize-too-worthy-for-its-own-good

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/turner-prize

Cunningham, John M., Turner Prize, in «Encyclopedia Britannica», 4 Dec. 2019

Pénet, Pierre and Kangsan, Lee, Prize & price: The Turner Prize as a valuation device in the contemporary art market, in «Poetics 43» (2014): 149-171.

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