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Have art prizes had their day – Apollo Magazine

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Have art prizes had their day? | Apollo Magazine

24 February 2020

The decision to split the 2019 Turner Prize between the four shortlisted artists has divided critics. Do such subversive gestures divest prizes of their power, or open up new ways of judging contemporary art? 

Harry Thorne

No prize is an honour,’ wrote Thomas Bernhard, ‘the honour is perverse.’ In My Prizes: An Accounting (2010), a collection of the author’s musings on his relationship to, and vast collection of, literary awards, he spits bile at ‘so-called’ cultural prizes and the ‘feeble-witted’ judges who preside over them; at the ‘vanity, self-prettying and hypocrisy’ of it all.

Which is to say, the hypocrisy in which he himself became embroiled: ‘I remained too weak in all the years that prizes came my way, to say No. […] I despised the people who were giving the prizes but I didn’t strictly refuse the prizes themselves. It was all offensive, but I found myself the most offensive of all.’

Cultural awards are contradictory by nature. They can be era-defining, career-defining, canonising (for better or worse – often worse), yet they are broadly acknowledged to be false indicators of accomplishment. Whether or not we agree with the results, can we accept that ‘merit’, ‘quality’ and ‘achievement’ can be evaluated against a designed criteria? Or, more crucially, should we?

Such questions are enduring. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre explained his rejection of the Nobel Prize in Literature with the comment: ‘The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution.’ In recent years, however, these questions have grown louder and more frequent, with creative figures pushing back against the institutions attempting to recognise their work – or, more accurately, against the processes being employed to do so.

In 2019, the Booker Prize twisted its own rules to celebrate two novels, by Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, a controversial decision that saw detractors note how the first black woman to win the prestigious award had been forced to share it. That same year, the four artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize (Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani) announced that they would only accept the award as a collective. ‘We feel strongly motivated to […] make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity,’ read Cammock at the presentation ceremony, ‘in art as in society.’

Cammock clarified: ‘If there’s any kind of concerns that we’re somehow undermining the prize, it’s exactly the opposite.’ But undermined it has been. As with the numerous high-profile artists who have chosen to share their awards of late, the Turner Prize verdict (or the judges’ immediate acceptance of it) is indicative of a power shift. Faith in prestigious cultural institutions is wavering. In and of itself, this is no bad thing: institutions should push, and be pushed, to faithfully reflect the communities that they represent and, as such, their systems of evaluation should repeatedly be called into question. But the suggestion that the accepting of an award amounts to an endorsement of societal inequality sets a worrying precedent.

For the likes of Murillo and Abu Hamdan, the latter of whom was awarded the Edvard Munch Prize days after the Turner Prize announcement, the exchanging of capital proper for cultural capital might make financial sense, given the market value of their work. For others, however, the monetary value of an award (the Turner prize comes with £25,000) might prove far more beneficial than the figurative pats on the back that they might receive were they to publicly denounce said award. But denounce they might, because, were they not to do so, they would be indirectly opposing ‘commonality, multiplicity and solidarity’.

There are additional considerations when thinking about the opportunities awards create. What of the few prizes that recognise early-career artists (New Contemporaries), regional arts organisations (Museum of the Year), mid-career women artists (the Freelands Award) or ambitious video projects (Jerwood/FVU Awards)? But our changing attitude towards art awards also signals a more abstract threat: a crisis of criticism.

To declare that certain bodies of work are exempt from judgement is to deny that culture, as a whole, is built upon judgement. When we interact with art, literature, or music, for example, we assess it in relation to all that we have experienced before. To assert that, out of respect for an art form’s subject or intent, it is excused from subjective critical evaluation is to reject that truth and delegitimise criticism as a practice.

If, as Cammock suggested, art is bound to society, then so too is judgement. In our contemporary age, cursed as it is, we must strive to protect both – however perverse they might seem.

Harry Thorne is a writer, editor and critic based in London.

Alistair Hudson

The Turner Prize is firmly established as the principal prize in the art calendar and is fully engrained in the public psyche. It has regularly introduced the general public to the current state of contemporary art, facilitated by an association perfected over the years between media and institution. The success of the prize has come in part from its capacity to shock: an unmade bed, a potter not a painter, architects not artists, a pickled calf or a bum-hole doorway.

Last year in Margate the shock came not from the art but the announcement itself. Artists Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani chose to share the prize ‘to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity – in art as in society’. The statement drew a standing ovation and seemed genuinely moving; in a time of division here was some unity. The gesture offered a challenge to the prize, or at least its integrity as a competitive sport.

Cue the ensuing debate. For some, this act of selflessness would change the prize for good, even bring it to an end, now that artists had unionised in this way. This might be the case, but I suspect not. An artist I was chatting with not long after confirmed that if they were nominated, they would not be sharing the prize with anyone.

My own jury service for the Turner Prize was in 2015 and resulted in the Assemble collective winning for their regeneration project with residents of the Granby Four Streets neighbourhood in Liverpool. The idea of a multidisciplinary group working outside the art market, or even something ‘not art at all’ triumphing, was seen then as a big challenge to the system. That other art worlds exist was not easy to digest. ‘You’ve broken art!’ someone said on the night. I reassured them that it would be business as usual next year, and it was.

The Turner’s resilience suggests that such art prizes still have a role to play, as long as we live in an age of spectacle. However, they belong to a time that is passing, one rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the ‘exhibitionary’ moment. The emerging shift from mechanistic thinking to ecological thinking – or our habit of thinking about art in isolation from the world rather than as something that is connected to wider cultural or social frameworks – will bring with it a change in emphasis from product to process. We are already seeing the emergence of a more values-driven generation which is in turn driving a more values-based economy. The unionisation of last year’s Turner Prize winners hints at this, in turning the gaze from the prize itself to wider societal issues.

In this context art prizes must evolve so as to support and make visible the process of making art and its effect on the world. Concentrating attention on the singular image or object does not tell the full story of the role that art plays in our culture, reinforcing an idea of creativity complicit with the market rather than enriching a broader social capital. Now is the time to reassert art as a vital process that operates across education, social development, health and the broader economy.

There are some examples of this approach already in play. In recent years, the Artes Mundi prize has worked with the shortlisted artists on long-term commissions and projects in South Wales. The peripatetic Visible Award supports artists, chosen through a quasi-parliamentary public jury process,
to expand and deliver on their socially engaged practices. The point here is to engage with artistic projects that, in a radical and proactive way, are able to rethink our cities or rural communities, question education models and propose alternative models of economic development.

Both these formats exemplify how art prizes can be more open-ended, experimental and creative and less embedded in a singular perception of art as merely complicit in market and spectacle. I would welcome this further dissolution of art into the everyday, and suggest it is a viable approach for thinking about the future of art prizes.

Alistair Hudson is the director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery.

From the March 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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Art Gallery of Grande Prairie encouraging creativity at home – My Grande Prairie Now

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The Art Gallery of Grande Prairie is giving the community a chance to get creative while self-isolating. A program called “Art at Home” kicked off on April 1st as a resource for interactive family projects and a way to showcase community art.

Executive Director Jeff Erbach says art can spur creativity and challenge people, especially while they are spending more time at home.

A Euphemia Mcnaught drawing (Art Gallery of Grande Prairie)

“In these times, when a lot of people are sheltered in place, art can still play a provocative and powerful role in people’s lives.”

The gallery has released three collections so far including drawings from Peace Country artist Euphemia McNaught. The program also launched its first at-home Carlstrom Family Green Space project, which encourages artists to create their own collages.

Erbach adds Art at Home will be the focal point of the gallery moving forward as its physical location remains closed to the public.

The Gallery’s first Art at Home Carlstrom Family Green Space project. (The Art Gallery of Grande Prairie)

“Our mandate and our role is to contribute to the quality of life in the community. We are simply transitioning all of our activities so that people can still engage with art and still find creative things to do.”

Erbach says the gallery is looking to support the already creative community the Peace County has to offer.

“That includes some of our local businesses and entrepreneurs. These are really creative people. We’re finding a way with art to nurture that creative spark.”

Through social media, the program will feature updates on one-time projects, ongoing series, and invitations to create on the gallery’s website. A variety of posts will be made throughout the week moving forward to keep new and existing art lovers engaged until the facility opens its door again.

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Pandemic shutdowns create a ‘triple whammy’ for Western Canada’s arts community – The Globe and Mail

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The redesign concept for the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

Glenbow Museum

In another lifetime, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stood in front of John Hammond’s oil painting The Three Sisters at Calgary’s Glenbow museum, talking up philanthropy. He recounted the generosity of Eric Harvie, who founded the museum, and had once owned the painting. Harvie, who eventually made a fortune, began dabbling in Alberta’s oil and gas industry at a time when “a lot of dry wells were drilled and a lot of hopes were lost,” Kenney said. The Premier then pledged $40-million to Glenbow for major renovations. It was Feb. 21.

“We felt at that moment that the sky was the limit,” Glenbow CEO Nicholas Bell said during an interview this week. “I think if you look at the calendar, that was, like, five weeks ago. Honestly, it feels like a decade ago.”

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Catastrophe is not a word to be used lightly, but the coronavirus pandemic is worthy and arts institutions were among the first to take a hit. Performance venues were immediately affected, with shutdowns ordered in certain cases just hours before showtime. What followed has been a raft of cancellations and layoffs, with no idea when the lights can be flipped back on. At the same time, in Alberta, the price of oil has tanked.

Handout photo shows Nicholas R. Bell, CEO of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary. The Alberta government announced a $40-million pledge for major renovations to the Glenbow on Feb. 21, 2020. “Honestly, it feels like a decade ago,” Bell says.

Chelsea Yang-Smith/Glenbow Museum

For cultural organizations in Western Canada, the difficulties in rebuilding may be amplified. There is a smaller population – and thus donor base – and more distance from most head offices and their vital sponsorship dollars.

“The whole corporate fundraising aspect of arts is a big challenge out west,” says Tom Wright, now Vancouver Opera’s general director (he had been interim director). “That is why we do a lot of corporate fundraising in Toronto.”

The problem is particularly acute in Alberta, which is dealing with what Janice Price, president and CEO of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, calls a triple whammy: the devastated energy sector compromising a major source of philanthropy, cuts in provincial government funding, and now a pandemic.

The Banff Centre’s temporary layoff of 400 people – 75 per cent of its staff – is a stark example of what has been happening at arts and cultural organizations. At institutions including Glenbow, Alberta Ballet, the National Music Centre, the Calgary Stampede – all of which have temporarily laid off about 80 per cent of their workforces – job losses have been an ugly necessity.

“It’s tough sledding in Alberta; very, very tough sledding,” says Annemarie Petrov, president and CEO of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Winspear Centre. “I think not-for-profits are relatively resilient, but there is a breaking point.”

Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra president and CEO Paul Dornian projects a $2-million loss in earned revenues between the March shutdown and the end of the CPO’s season, June 13.

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“Two million dollars is a lot to make up; in fact, there’s no way to do it in this type of climate.”

At different companies, the numbers vary, but the experience is universal: unprecedented gravity and uncertainty.

“The one thing we do know for sure is that things are not going to go back to what they were three weeks ago,” says Patti Pon, president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development, which has created a $1.1-million relief fund for artists.

“It is unlikely to me that all of the companies that came into this crisis are going to come out the other side.”

Rose Ginther, associate dean of the faculty of fine arts and communications at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, agrees some companies will likely fold. “Arts organizations run very close to the bone,” she says. “There isn’t an ounce of fat.”

Fundraising has never been so critical, and yet it has never been so fraught. Oil and gas companies, once Alberta’s leaders in arts sponsorship, have made their own cuts. Many donors have lost jobs, or seen their financial holdings tumble.

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Soliciting funds right now to support an orchestra or art gallery could be perceived as insensitive.

“It’s not the best time to bombard people with a lot of asks,” says Stephanie Raynor, chief advancement officer at Theatre Calgary. “We know our donors will be there when the time is right,” Raynor says.

Will they, though? There is a danger of Alberta’s philanthropic wells running dry.

For now, organizations are reporting heartening generosity. Patrons are e-mailing with messages of support and often donating the cost of tickets for cancelled performances rather than asking for refunds.

The Banff Centre says it received some 50 donations the week after laying off 400 people. “Many of our major donors said … they’re going to continue to fund us no matter what,” says vice-president of marketing and development, Rosemary Thompson. “They want the Banff Centre to survive.”

The Glenbow is confident in the promised funding for that renovation.

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The CPO, after issuing temporary layoffs, this week recalled musicians and staff, but with reduced hours. “That leaves us in a much better position to, when this ends, come back with some strength.”

For groups that can’t come back, Pon vows to recognize their contributions.

“In my experience when a company closes, all we remember about it is its closure. And all we associate with it is its failure,” she says. “We’ll work as hard as we can to honour them and make sure that they exit with grace and dignity and celebration.”


Farther west, in British Columbia, among the big cancellations this spring is what would have been Vancouver Opera’s final festival. Next year, unrelated to the pandemic, it will revert to a regular season, scrapping its unpopular festival experiment – something it had hoped to announce at this season’s closing event.

Other big questions surround the Vancouver Art Gallery. Neither its interim director nor board chair was available for an interview this week, but it’s hard to imagine its nearly $400-million new gallery project — which has been in the works for years but never broken ground — proceeding as planned. The project has been seeking $100-million from Ottawa and $50-million from the province, in addition to $50-million already granted by the province project in 2008.

“I can’t see that in the next 48 months being a priority,” says Bob Rennie, a philanthropist and collector who has long been openly critical of the project.

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Rennie says there’s an old adage that has guided him through his own business dealings: “a man who adheres to a position previously stated when times change is a fool.”


At the National Music Centre in Calgary, president and CEO Andrew Mosker believes Canadian arts organizations have a responsibility right now: to keep the country’s spirits – and hopes – high as we await what he calls “the next normal.”

Artists’ responses to the crisis were almost immediate. Jann Arden was among the first to livestream a performance, from her southern Alberta home. Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre has launched a Stuck in the House series. Contemporary Calgary will launch an initiative on Monday called Art Where You Are, with an online interview with Luke Jerram, whose Museum of the Moon, hangs suspended under the dome – and in time – in the closed gallery. Jerram will discuss a new work in his Glass Microbiology series: a glass sculpture of COVID-19.

But the pandemic presents an opportunity for more than some cool livestreams.

“I think this is a watershed moment,” Price says. “I think there will be a lot of dialogue when this is over about ‘what did we learn?’ and ‘how do we manage our organizations differently in the future?’”

Resilience has always been a theme when it comes to Alberta. Floods, fires, economic downturns – the province has emerged from it all, not unscathed, but standing. Resilience is also a forte for artists. Through the worst of times, there is creation. Nobody knows what the cultural landscape will look like on the flip side of this staggering event. But for sure, there will be art at the end of it. And along the way, to help ease this grim journey.


Banff Centre for Arts temporarily lays off 400 staff via email

File photo shows an aerial view of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Paul Zizka Photography/Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

That Thursday was an excruciating day on the mountain for all: senior management making difficult decisions; hundreds of employees learning they were out of work. The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity temporarily laid off 400 employees on March 19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Banff Centre has never faced a layoff of this size,” spokesperson Rosemary Thompson said.

“We can’t deliver our programs online,” Banff Centre president and chief executive Janice Price explained to The Globe and Mail the next day. “We are about being on this campus, in this location, where we also house you and feed you, which of course is something we should not be doing now, putting people into close quarters with each other.”

But some employees felt the layoff was mishandled. (They spoke with The Globe on the condition of anonymity, as they say they’re worried about not being called back from their layoff.)

The notices were not communicated personally but delivered by e-mail – and those e-mails did not arrive at a uniform time, so in some cases, employees in the same office spent hours waiting to learn if they had lost their jobs after their co-workers had received their notice.

Laying off staff is a brutal duty at the best of times. But the coronavirus pandemic forced arts organizationsto lay off staff in large numbers and with little warning. Still, when implementing a mass layoff due to an unforeseen catastrophe, are there ways to make the ugly process a little more humane? And safe?

At the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, for instance, where 112 people were temporarily laid off, the layoffs were communicated in person or by phone calls, followed by an e-mail. At the Stratford Festival, which laid off nearly 500 people, a virtual town hall allowed artistic director Antoni Cimolino and executive director Anita Gaffney to address everyone. “It was clear, direct and quite moving,” actor Miles Potter says. Directors and managers then personally called everyone who was affected. That evening, there was a follow-up by e-mail. Staff were given a week’s notice.

“Even in the worst of times, even when you have no choice but to let people go because there is no business option, how you do it matters,” says Kanina Blanchard, a leadership development consultant and lecturer at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario.

Blanchard was speaking about best practices in general and not about the Banff Centre, which she declined to comment on.

The Banff Centre says it chose to inform employees by e-mail in order to adhere to social distancing measures, which it mentioned in the e-mails.

Thompson told The Globe that the senior team will reduce or donate their compensation during the crisis to support the Banff Centre’s recovery – 20 per cent of base salary for Price and 15 per cent by the other members of the senior leadership team.

The union says there was nothing illegal or grievable about how management handled the layoffs.

“It may rub some people the wrong way and that’s fine,” says Lou Arab, communications representative for CUPE. “They’re entitled to feel how they feel.”

Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

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David Driskell, prominent authority on black art, dies at 88 – Times Colonist

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FALMOUTH, Maine — David Driskell, one of the nation’s most influential African American artists and a leading authority on black art, has died. He was 88.

Driskell was a multimedia artist who used the trees around his Falmouth, Maine, cabin home as a feature in his work. A spokeswoman for the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland said he died on Wednesday. The cause of his death, in a hospital near his home in Hyattsville, Maryland, was not disclosed.

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Driskell went to Maine in the 1950s to study at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He was part of a wave of artists who came to the state from New York, the Portland Press Herald reported. He would go on to become the author of several books and more than 40 catalogues, and curated “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the 1970s. The show was pivotal in paving the way for the study of African American art history.

Driskell once said of Maine: “I dream about it when I’m not there.”

The spokeswoman for the Driskell Center said services are not planned at this time due to concerns about coronavirus, which has disrupted funeral services around the country.

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