Kim Varstala from the Finnish Institute blogs about the effects awards have on the visibility of contemporary art and the future of art galleries. The text is a part of the institute’s new project: Visibility and Impact of Contemporary Art in Contemporary Society.
Throughout the 20th century, British artists kept gaining international recognition. By 2008, twelve of the top 50 living artists under the age of 50 were British. How was this rapid market success of British art possible? The answer is recognition through awards.
Britain has no shortage of prestigious artistic awards and funding for both individuals and institutions. There is a whole range of national, regional and local awards issued, for example, by the Arts Foundation, the Contemporary Art Society and Arts Council England, and for the struggling artist they are all equally important: In her address at the Paul Hamlyn Awards in 2010 Charlotte Higgins quoted artist Bedwyr Williams as saying that “winning awards was like ‘being refueled in mid air just as I was about to attempt an emergency landing’. To tonight’s winners: we heartily congratulate you. And we cannot wait to see you fly”.
Leading the pack of prestigious art awards is the Turner Prize, a contemporary art award presented by Tate and held at Tate Britain. Since the Patrons of New Art established the Turner Prize in 1984 it has become the most prestigious art award in the world. The setting up of the prize itself was a stroke of genius by Tate in a time of financial difficulty, as it allowed for mounting of contemporary art without having to collect it.
Awarded to a British-based artist, who has arranged an “outstanding exhibition” in the last twelve months, the Turner Prize signals what is worth keeping and provides crucial information to collectors, dealers and lay audiences about the value of an artist. The age limit of 50 also meant that the Turner Prize was able to introduce young and promising British artist described as “late emergent” or “early mid-career”. This particular focus group from the Turner Prize’s early days later became known as the Young British Artists.
Everyone made a point of following the Turner Prize and seeing the nominated artists’ exhibition. By the early 90s the increased media interest had turned the award into a national obsession which meant that the Turner Prize definitely became the direct and complex valuation device we know today. According to a study by Pierre Pénet and Kangsan Lee, the profound effect the award has on the contemporary artist can be explained using three different variables: brockerage, deliberation and institutional labeling.
Brockerage means that the Turner Prize causes a significant departure from institutionalized valuation routines by bringing together a great diversity of profiles in its jury. The nominees are automatically put “in the front of the pack” which therefore increases the likelihood of dramatic success.
Deliberation means that buyers may find owning a work of art that has drawn large public attention appealing. In a market environment that lacks value standards, attendance and media figures serves as an experiment of how much an artist is worth.
Finally, institutional labeling has proved to be an important variable. Even just by being nominated an artist is thereafter known as a “Turner Prize artist”, which sends reassuring signals to buyers and increases the price that an artist commands. Looking at all the participants and winners of the Turner Prize, it’s the taking part that matters for their future career, more so than actually winning.
The proliferation of new arts prizes centered on the same criteria as the Turner Prize (age, nationality and a one year time span) is likely to make hastened success a broader phenomenon in the contemporary art world. New York has the Hugo Boss Prize, Paris the Marcel Duchamps Prize, Berlin the National Gallery Prize for Young Art and Tampere the Young Artist of the Year award.
Does the recognition that artists receive through these awards also mean that the role of galleries, dealers and critics is starting to evaporate? An interesting example is Damien Hirst’s (Turner Prize winner 1995) highly successful move to consign his art directly to an auction house on 15 September 2008, selling an unprecedented $270 million worth of art.
The increasing self-sustainability of artists due to recognition through awards means that the art world is at a turning point. Allan Majotra, founder of the online gallery PicassoMio, has been looking more closely at the future of the art galleries and museums and these are two of his conclusions: firstly, in order to survive, galleries will have to become sophisticated retailers and will have to begin employing strategies that are currently used by luxury and other retail companies. Artists will benefit from his trend and will force galleries to stop using techniques as exclusivity clauses in their contracts.
Secondly, Majotra predicts that Art fairs will decline in popularity. New technologies and larger galleries will lead to the declining importance of art trade fairs. There will be a significant consolidation in the arts market and, similar to the world of galleries, the art fairs will decline in numbers.
So does this mean, paradoxically, that the awards presented by museums and other institutions in order to promote contemporary art are actually more beneficiary for the individual artist? If so, one could argue that this indirectly leads to the alienation of the public towards the contemporary art field in general which, in turn, hits back at the museums issuing the awards in the first place.
The museums seem to be aware of this trend and are developing solutions to cope with future cuts to both financial grants and attendance figures. In a Guardian blog post Jonathan Jones discusses the possibility of future “artless museums” as a concept yet to emerge. He writes that a bookless library is already open in San Antonio, Texas, dedicated to e-reading and poses the question whether there one day will be artless museums too?
“We’re already on the way there. It’s not just that all major museums now make much if not all of their collections visible on websites and apps …you could see the entire collection digitally and then examine some choice painting for real, in the ‘analogue’ room”, writes Jones.
Tate Britain has established that a gallery has no responsibility to show all of its collection and can keep much of it in store while showing some of it in its networks of galleries, making more available online. Are artless galleries the inevitable future caused by praise of the individual? Will the recognition artists gain through awards continue to trump the general public’s interest in contemporary art?
Higgins, C. 2010. The Guardian. “If you think the cuts to arts funding will have no effect, you are either deluded, in denial of dishonest…”, accessed on 15 September 2014.
Jones, J. 2014. The Guardian. “Welcome to the art galleries of the future”, accessed on 15 September 2014.
Majotra, A. Fine Art: What is the Future of the Art World? , accessed on 15 September 2014.
Penet, P & Lee, K. 2014. Poetics vol. 43 pp. 149-171. “Prize & Price: The Turner Prize as a valuation device in the contemporary art market”, Elsevier Science B.V., Amsterdam.