Ambivalant Spectacle? Jason Oakley Reflects on ‘Arts Awards: Prizes! Prizes!’


txt1[1]The art world has a funny relationship to art prizes and awards – a certain sniffyness prevails. Some artists say they don’t care if they win or not, or that they’d rather not be nominated – the surrounding hoopla is just not their thing. Curators are loath to say that they’re overly impressed by the winners of various gongs and baubles. But to give this attitude its due, Stuart Morgan, writing in the very first edition of Frieze Magazine in 1991, perhaps never said truer words than “artists are not in competition with each other but with themselves and the past”.

So what is the public role of arts awards? On one level, it’s always gratifying to see the Turner Prize included in mainstream media coverage – it’s an opportunity for an affirmation and demystification of contemporary art. But on the other hand, the exposure is not all good. The Daily Mail always has a field day with the Turner Prize, reporting sensationally on what “gets called art these days”. The prize is also vulnerable to accusations of ‘festivalisation’: a once a year taster that only gives a selective picture of what contemporary art is. Don’t audiences deserve year-round access and engagement with the arts?

In theory, the positives outweigh the negatives. Big spectacles like the Turner Prize can highlight the talent, creativity and energy of the art world to the general public; they function as occasions for healthy debate on ultimately irresolvable questions about the quality and value of art.

As signalled by its rather brash title ‘Art Awards: Prizes! Prizes! Prizes!’ Visual Artist Ireland’s talk, held on Saturday 9 November 2013 at the Golden Thread Gallery in partnership with the 2013 Turner Prize, set out to explore the ambivalent attitudes around art prizes in all their forms. The talk was part of a daylong programme, ‘From Grassroots to Celebrity’, exploring developmental pathways and milestones for artists from local artist-led spaces to international edifices such as the Turner Prize.txt2[1]

The day was the brainchild of VAI’s Northern Ireland Manager Feargal O’Malley and Head of Learning for The Turner Prize, Lynn McGrane, who kindly invited yours truly to chair a panel of experienced prize-givers and recipients: artist and Director of Golden Thread Gallery Peter Richards; independent curator / consultant and former Head of Exhibitions at IMMA Brenda McParland, who also organised the Glen Dimplex and Nissan art awards; artist and Head of Fine Art at NCAD Phillip Napier; and MAC Curator Hugh Mulholland. The framework for the discussion was broad, and took into account the myriad formats and forms of art prizes: open submission shows, commissions, biennale-type presentations, commissions, emerging talent / lifetime achievement awards, surveys and residency prizes etc.

Hugh Mulholland stressed that art prizes should be primarily devised with aims and ambitions of artists in mind – artists should want to be part of them. His own curatorial career, as he’s often publically stated, was born of a desire to draw attention to an emerging generation of Northern Irish artists who were then his peers. This culminated, to an extent in his presentation of their work at the 2005 Northern Ireland show within the Venice Biennale. Mullholland typified the best art prizes as positioning both institutions and artists in a mutually beneficial way – raising profiles and connecting them to national and international networks.

Brenda McParland agreed with Mulholland, noting that IMMA’s Glen Dimplex Prize (1994 – 2001) was consciously devised as part of the development of the profile and activities of the institution, which was still young at the time. Also emphasising the centrality of the artist, McParland noted that IMMA’s prize exhibition of the four nominated artists was always devised a distinct set of independent mini exhibitions. There was no self-conscious attempt to represent a zeitgeist in the selection process or the installation. Mulholland and McParland also agreed that central to the whole business of selection was making decisions about when an artist was at the ‘right’ stage of their careers, ie demonstrating not only a good track record but also the potential to develop further.

Mulholland is clearly an advocate of awards, but sounded some notes of caution: those on selection panels should always be on guard about rewarding success for its own sake, ie giving awards to the winners of other awards. And he’d witnessed cases of nominated artists getting stuck in an attention vacuum, the explosion of publicity around the winning artist temporarily diminishing their profile.

In terms of the funding and sponsorship behind awards, Mulholland and McParland stated that the happiest partnerships had arisen from sponsors approaching their respective institutions. Both have also worked strategically to court support at one time or other but as Mulholland put it, making lists of potential ‘sponsor benefits’ can become a rather tangential and pointless exercises. In their experience, the most successful arrangements simply came about due to the sponsors’ sincere interest in the contemporary art world – and supporting art for its own sake – rather than any strategic concerns for reaping corporate benefits.

Phillip Napier, who was shortlisted for the Glen Dimplex and represented Ireland and the UK in Biennale-type shows such as Sao Paulo (1994) and Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (1995), confirmed the ‘positioning’ role of prizes for artists as part of the process by which artists up their game and achieve intuitional support and validation. Napier concurred that artists were in a state of perpetual competiveness with themselves and their future potential and reputation – adding that artists could only be as good as their last work. By way of illustration, he recounted that on his nomination for the 1998 Glen Dimplex award, he elected to make an untested ambitious work, treating the award exhibition opportunity as a kind of production residency. He wasn’t that year’s winner and he ruefully commented to McParland that had he played safer perhaps his chances would have been better.

Peter Richards stated that he was an artist with a low level of participation and success when it came to art prizes and awards, which makes him representative of most artists. Modesty aside, Richards conceded that inclusion in Mulholland’s 2005 Venice show had been a milestone for him. Likewise, having his work selected for the 1999 Bloomburg New Contemporaries show was a break though; it helped him make links with regional UK venues, which he hadn’t been able to do working out of Northern Ireland. In terms of his work as the Director of the Golden Thread, he noted that, while the venue doesn’t have any explicit prize structures, in devising shows for artists, their participation in art fairs and their development of the venue was of course part of a wider field of affirmation and adjudication of the art world.

Richards and Napier didn’t dwell on their own personal experiences of the life changing benefits of award monies and accolades to their practices. The financial and reputational benefits of prize monies and publicity are after all more than self-evident. Instead, they joined Mullholland and McParland in underlining the importance of artists participating in award structures for more work day and slow burning benefits to their careers – namely ongoing visibility and connection to networks.

The discussion closed with the consensus that art prizes are one of the key resources used by the art world for its ongoing decision-making processes in terms of exhibitions, residencies – and of course, more prizes. To ensure the circulation of your work within the networks of exchange and communication that make up the art world, artists simply have to participate in this system.

While the effort and monies expended on putting together an unsuccessful application might seem futile to some, the panel emphasised that applying to prizes undeniably gets your work across the desks of the influential artworld gate-keepers. It’s a cliché, but true. To recast Hugh Mullholland’s opening point, all serious artists should want to pursue prizes – what is there to be ambivalent about?

Jason Oakley
Publications Manager
Visual Artists Ireland