ART PRIZE In 2003, Howard Bilton, chairman of the Hong Kong-based Sovereign Group, set up the Sovereign Asian Arts Prize, an annual award of $25,000 established “to give recognition to some of the most important artists of our time”.
Sovereign European Arts Prize
Two years later, he set up another prize for European artists, with a prize sum of €25,000 ($39,000). Both were ambitious projects – particularly considering that Bilton, a barrister by profession, does not profess to know much about art (although, he tells me, he did buy a painting by Craigie Aitchison in 1995 on a whim, the value of which rocketed almost immediately).
More than a dozen major prizes in UK alone
As Bilton found, it isn’t easy to create a buzz around a new European art prize. There are more than a dozen major prizes in the UK alone, including the John Moores Prize, the Turner Prize and the BP Portrait Award and the Jerwood Prizes, and new ones are being launched each year.
Sovereign prize different – incorporates auction
The Sovereign prizes represent a new and controversial phase in this history. The main difference between the Sovereigns and older models is that they offer an opportunity for buyers to bid at auction for the paintings by the 29 runners-up.
This year’s judges
This shortlist of 30 is chosen by a jury (this year Tim Marlow of the White Cube, Philly Adams of the Saatchi Gallery, Rachel Campbell-Johnston of The Times and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp) from a long-list nominated by “art world insiders”.
The winner is chosen by marking each work out of five – easier than having the jury in a room together, according to Bilton (although, when I call the Sovereign office just before the shortlist is announced, they seem to have lost Cocker up a mountain).
Half the proceeds of each sale will this year be given to Kids Company, a charity founded by Camila Batmanghelidjh to provide support to inner-city young people; the rest goes to the artist.
When I ask Bilton whether he has received any objections from galleries about a system that does away with their fee, he assures me that “they’re usually happy to participate because that 50 per cent goes to charity. Plus their artist gets to be on a prestigious shortlist”.
Credibility an issue?
But can such a young prize really have the prestige and effect that Bilton claims? His prize is distinctive, he says, because its focus is European and because its aims are philanthropic. Credibility is not an issue, he explains; each painting has been nominated by an expert.
Yet some art world insiders suggest that, notwithstanding their philanthropic aims, new art prizes can be riddled with problems.
Sceptics might wonder whether, by keeping the winning piece, Sovereign has found an inexpensive way of building a collection. There are precedents for prize-winning works forming collections – the John Moores prize-winners, for instance, go to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool – but here, the money is given to the artist in addition to the cost of acquiring the work. And, although entering a public collection can increase the value of an artist’s work, the Sovereign Foundation’s collection does not yet have the same kudos as other prizes.
Graham Crowley, former professor of painting at the Royal College of Art and winner of the John Moores Prize in 2006, has been on the jury for the Moores prize and several others. He suggests that the principle of combining art award and art auction is “bonkers” and constitutes “a patchwork quilt” of different aims.
John Moores prize
Crowley advocates the John Moores Prize because it is founded on a commitment to painting and because its judges are a “savvy bunch”, favouring practitioners over critics and – his pet hate – celebrity judges. He argues that art prizes gain authority only by building a reputation for picking artists who subsequently win wider recognition. Not all juries are capable of identifying talent in this way. “I’ve been on a jury where one celebrity couldn’t be bothered to come so his wife came instead,” he confides.
Crowley is also keen to challenge the assumption that winning an arts prize will increase the value of an artist’s work. He admits that the value of paintings by Peter Doig and Michael Raedecker rose by as much as 200 per cent soon after they won the John Moores Prize but says that the statistic should be treated with caution; such increases mark the juries’ ability to choose artists whose “stock was already rising”.
Philanthropy and auctions to become more common
Despite such reservations, it seems likely that art prizes with a philanthropic twist will become more common. As well as understanding businessmen’s desire to give to charity, Bilton has clearly spotted the craze for auctions as a form of entertainment. At a time when more and more people are looking to invest in contemporary art as a part of their lifestyle, art prizes offer an attractive entry point at the lower end of the market. And there is always that dream, however unlikely, that a work acquired on a whim will increase in value to Hirstian heights.
Source: Financial Times
See (in new window)