Turner Prize – never say never



The name of the winner of the Turner Prize will be announced on Monday, 1 December. The four shortlisted artists, whose works are currently on show at the Tate Britain, are two video-makers, a performance artist and a multi-media artist.

Widely recognized today, the Turner Prize has had a difficult history with a lot of controversy and much public debate about what constitutes a work of art at practically every edition.

While the format has not changed significantly since its origins (a handful of “nominees”, an exhibition, a financial prize), the institution has nevertheless evolved while sticking firmly to a sort of counter-market policy. On the eve of the 30th edition of the prestigious London award, Artprice looks back at some of its defining moments.

The Turner Prize, which suffers from an exaggerated association with the Young British Artists and the Saatchi Gallery, started to count in the last decade of the 20th century, as a kind of pre-cursor of the new century ahead.

In its early years, from 1984 to 1990, the Prize had trouble establishing a clear and exciting policy. It faced the difficult challenge of “discovering” the artists of tomorrow, ahead of their time, while eliciting the interest of a “general public” audience. However several artists who today enjoy major international reputations were selected in the early editions such as Howard HODGKIN and GILBERT & GEORGE. Since then, these artists have acquired substantial market power and generated auction records above half a million dollars.

But the Turner Prize struggled to gain a wider audience and the artists’ shortlists began to look dangerously narrow. Richard LONG, for example, was shortlisted three times before finally winning the prize in 1989.

So it was decided to select artists that already enjoyed a certain reputation alongside other much younger artists with very little public exposure, a policy that resulted in Lucian FREUD being selected in 1988… and losing to the almost unknown Tony CRAGG. At the time, Lucien Freud was already a widely appreciated artist: on 30 June of that year, his painting Head of a man (1966) fetched £250,000 at Sotheby’s in London. Not surprisingly, the public found the decision of the Turner Prize jury difficult to understand.

In 1989, the jury repeated the same error and its main sponsor decided to withdraw its funding. The prize was not awarded in 1990 – but the following year it returned on a better footing.

Henceforward, the nominees were much younger. Anish KAPOOR (born 1954) won the award against three artists under 30, and the event was covered by its new sponsor, Britain’s Channel 4 television. There followed a succession of 3D artists who have all subsequently established successful artistic careers including Rachel WHITEREAD, Antony GORMLEY and Damien HIRST. And although each decision was surrounded by controversy at the time, the market has subsequently confirmed its relevance since all three are now among the top 100 Contemporary artists by auction revenue (Artprice figures) and each generated auction turnover over three million dollars in 2013!

However, in reality the selected Turner Prize winner is not the only winner of the contest. Being shortlisted for the Turner Prize is in itself a considerable boost for a young artist. A good example is Peter DOIG: shortlisted in 1994, and then exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery three years later, he is today one of the top-selling Contemporary artists in the world with a latest record of $16 million set just a few days ago (12 November 2014).

Likewise for Sean SCULLY and Tracey EMIN… with the latter being a particularly interesting case in point. Emin’s presentation of My Bed for the Turner Prize in 1999 caused considerable outrage and few collectors proposed to acquire the work. However, the installation was acquired by Charles Saatchi, for £150,000, to be exhibited in his gallery. In July 2014 it reappeared on the market and was acquired by Count Christian Duerckheim for £2.2 million.

Although My Bed is now on loan to the Tate Gallery, the work symbolizes the Turner Prize and its ability to inject momentum into the evolution of the art market, open its borders without submitting to its standards. And, with time, the market ends up following its initiative.

In 2014, artists’ provocations no longer generate so much controversy. But the Turner Prize continues to irritate and to elicit impatient calls for it to recompense a painter or even a sculptor. Recent juries have awarded the prize to an installation or a video. In short, they have selected works that are “difficult to collect”.

The hybrid artworks, half video – half installation, created by Laure PROUVOST (winner in 2013) are indeed unlikely to be the stars of the market! Photography accounts for only 1.3% of the entire global auction in 2014, while video and installation are virtually non-existent on the secondary market. So why the prize?

Perhaps precisely in order to trigger a change in market behaviour. The latest editions of the Turner Prize have attracted the public eye to works that “substitute” the market, a market that is more than ever at the centre of attention. It highlights an art that escapes collectors, an art that likes to combine different media and the opportunities that each medium provides.

And yet what seemed uncollectable fifteen years ago is today sought-after by a growing population of collectors. So perhaps what they reject today will be popular in fifteen years. In any case, that is the primary lesson to be learned from thirty years of the Turner Prize.