How the Turner Prize Became One of Art’s Biggest Awards

Scott Indrisek
Nov 29, 2019 7:30PM

The Turner Prize, first awarded in 1984, provides an opportunity for the entire British citizenry to voice its strong feelings about contemporary art.

Each year, a panel of judges determines a short list of four worthy British artists—either born or based in the U.K.—who have staged exemplary exhibitions or works around the globe. Then, works by the short-listed artists go on view to the public in an exhibition at Tate Britain or another U.K. institution. After the panel makes their final selection in early December, the victor is splashily announced via a televised ceremony, with populist celebs like Madonna presenting the honors. Turner Prize winners receive a fairly modest £25,000 ($32,000) bundle of cash—but they also reap the priceless benefits of exposure and prestige.

This sort of public frenzy can seem strange to Americans, since we literally have nothing like it on our shores. Our fancy arts-related awards might come with bigger jackpots—consider the so-called MacArthur “Genius” grant, which bestows a mighty $625,000 upon its recipients—but none of them manage to generate the same level of engagement, discussion, and argument.

Damien Hirst
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 2013
Paul Stolper Gallery

“Our contemporary art world is often so hallowed, so removed from everyday life, [that] people feel that they don’t have the knowledge to comment,” said Linsey Young, curator of contemporary British art at Tate Britain, who has curated several editions of the award’s exhibition. “There’s something about the Turner Prize—people feel like they can say what they want, for good or for bad. It’ll be featured in our tabloid newspapers. It’s on the radio, it’s on the telly. That just doesn’t happen with most contemporary art shows.”

Art writer (and Artsy contributor) Digby Warde-Aldam recalled the heady days of the mid-1990s, when “tabloid editors looking to provoke outrage in their readers” breathlessly reported on the controversial Young British Artists (YBAs) who were nominated. “It’s hard to understand quite how furious people were about [Damien Hirst’s] work,” he said, thinking back to the 1995 Turner Prize in which Hirst beat out Mona Hatoum, Mark Wallinger, and Callum Innes for top honors. “I remember seeing a segment about Hirst winning on a children’s news program,” Warde-Aldam said. “My grandmother walked into the room at the moment the screen showed the dissected sheep innards—and screamed.”

While controversy and button-pushing certainly isn’t a prerequisite to Turner Prize victory, it hasn’t hurt in the past. In 1998, Chris Ofili won the Turner, fresh off the heels of “Sensation,” the exhibition of YBAs from the collection of Charles Saatchi. When “Sensation” traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, it raised the wrath of Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who raged over Ofili’s mingling of religious imagery and elephant dung.

In 2001, Martin Creed took the prize. His work wasn’t offensive in the usual ways—there was nothing sacrilegious or sexual about it. Still, many armchair pundits didn’t grasp how Creed’s Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (2000)—a simple, empty room with a light that turned on and off, over and over again—qualified as high art.

“To understand the impact of the Turner Prize, especially in the 1990s, you have to understand that modern art was never internalized in 20th-century British culture in the same way as in America or, say, Germany,” explained Jonathan Jones, art critic at The Guardian and judge for the 2009 Turner Prize, which went to Richard Wright. “There was no British answer to MoMA before the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, and few people collected contemporary art, with the notable exception of Charles Saatchi. Beyond that, it was totally respectable for university-educated, middle-class people to affect a contempt for Picasso, let alone Jackson Pollock (assuming they’d heard of him) and ‘modern art’ in general. So when a generation of young, punkish, conceptual artists led by Damien Hirst made intentionally provocative and unquestionable avant-garde art, the Turner became the stage for a culture war that was really about what kind of place Britain should be. It was our modernist moment, many decades after the U.S. and other European countries.”

Over the years, the Turner Prize has continued to evolve with the times. Beginning in 1991, the prize stipulated a cut-off age of 50 for eligible artists; this criteria was scrapped in 2017. Young explained how this opened up the competition to artists—especially female artists—who, for a myriad of reasons, were gaining recognition for their work later in life. Thus far, the oldest Turner winner has been Lubaina Himid, who won in 2017, at the age of 63.

Martin Creed
Work No. 2665 EVERYTHING, 2016
Hauser & Wirth

The early short lists for the Turner Prize were shockingly imbalanced. During its first three years, only a single female artist, Milena Kalinovska, was under consideration. A female artist wouldn’t actually win the award until 1993. Rachel Whiteread won that year, nearly a decade after the Turner Prize’s inauguration.

“The Prize has gone through quite subtle changes, and the lists are certainly getting more diverse,” said Young. “I’m delighted by that, because obviously it reflects what’s happening in the wider contemporary art community.” That diversity is helped along by an eclectic, thoughtful judging panel, which now includes an outlier in the mix—someone who is engaged with art, but not in a direct, professional sense. Past examples include the novelist Tom McCarthy in 2018, or fashion journalist Charlie Porter on this year’s panel. Suggestions for the short list are also welcome from the general public, whose own nominations are provided to the judging panel for consideration.

Lubaina Himid
Le Rodeur: Exchange, 2016
Hollybush Gardens

The rhythm of the annual Turner Prize is fairly breakneck. Judges are chosen and announced around April or May. By around the following April, they must each submit a selection of artists to put in the running for the award, based on the exhibitions of the previous 12 months. The host museum’s curatorial team assembles background materials on this cohort of around 24 contenders, and the quartet of judges meets for a day-long marathon session, in order to generate the final short list of four nominees. Those lucky few are notified shortly thereafter, though it’s not a guarantee that everyone will accept. “It has happened, historically, that people haven’t felt they wanted the nomination,” Young said, “which I completely understand. It makes you a household name. Even if you don’t win, you become someone who was a Turner Prize nominee—and that’s too much for some people.”

Next, the Turner Prize short list is turned into an actual exhibition. The site alternates each year between Tate Britain in London and other art institutions across the U.K. Many, many people check it out. This year’s edition—presented at Turner Contemporary in Margate—saw 10,000 viewers flocking to the show during its opening weekend. There’s generally a public comment board for visitors to leave their thoughts. When I visited the show in 2018, they ranged from critiques of the comfort level of gallery furniture to accusations that Forensic Architecture’s research-heavy piece on Israeli police violence was somehow anti-Semitic.

Gambling sites weigh the odds of likely winners. Irate, upstart artist movements stage occasional protests and issue manifestos about how the prize demeans its namesake, the painter J.M.W. Turner. The press chimes in, too, of course: “Bleak and baffling, but no bum deal,” surmised The Guardian’s Adrian Searle in 2016, punning on an enormous sculpture of a man’s ass presented by nominee Anthea Hamilton, who ended up losing out to Helen Marten. “This year’s Turner Prize includes excrement in an orgy and a bearded lady from a nudist colony,” according to a 2011 report in The Independent, which didn’t sound too thrilled about any of it.

Part of Young’s job when curating a Turner Prize exhibition, she said, is making sure that the artists involved are prepared for the unexpected spotlight. “You might have [had] a show at Chisenhale Gallery that 11,000 people saw, and then you’re coming to the Tate, and it’s going to be many, many more than that,” she explained. “Public access can be very daunting, and also the press, because they do feel that they can say what they want. You have to make sure people are supported through that.”

Of course, a prize of this caliber, with such intense media attention, is never going to please everyone. “It’s got too small and too introspective,” warned Jones, when I asked him to reflect on the current state of the Turner a decade after he served as a judge. He wouldn’t mind seeing someone like Banksy land on the short list, he said (an assertion that has previously earned eyerolls from the likes of J.J. Charlesworth). “I find the Turner’s obsession with political art utterly tedious and trivial, but that also reflects the wider art world,” Jones added. “I want to see dung and guts again in the Turner.”

“The fashionable thing is not to like art prizes—and I get [that] putting artists in competition is a bit grim at times—but I do think they serve a purpose,” said ArtReview editor-at-large Oliver Basciano, who helped judge the 2018 award. “Looking back over the past winners and short lists since 1984 is a good way of seeing the changing preoccupations in art over the intervening decades.” Basciano recalled that in 2018, the short list felt balanced, including one artist he’d championed for many years and one he’d never really encountered before. “Certainly, short lists will always be subjective—how could they not be?” he continued. “But, at least for me personally, there was an aim to reflect the kind of art—and yes, the ‘best’—being made that year.”

Gillian Wearing
Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (Work towards world peace), 1992-1993
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

So what happens to Turner Prize winners after the initial glow has worn off a bit? For the most part, previous winners remain boldface names: Gillian Wearing (1997); Wolfgang Tillmans (2000); Grayson Perry (2003); Laure Prouvost (2013). As Jones noted, one also doesn’t have to win to benefit from the Turner; some artists on the short list have fared very well. He pointed to Tracey Emin, nominated in 1999 and still quite art-world famous. Forensic Architecture, meanwhile, lost out in 2018 to Charlotte Prodger, but resurfaced as a highlight of the 2019 Whitney Biennial (their video in the show investigated Safariland, the company owned by former board member Warren Kanders).

While it’s difficult to quantify, having the Turner Prize on one’s résumé must certainly be a boon for an artist’s career, and market. New York gallery Tanya Bonakdar boasts a trio of Turner Prize winners on its roster (Wearing, Susan Philipsz, Martin Boyce), as well as two nominees (Phil Collins, Nicole Wermers). “For winners and nominees alike,” Bonakdar said, “the exhibition and prize itself had a major impact in raising the profile and awareness of each artist’s practices. On the occasion of each new nomination, the gallery received a significant increase in inquiries internationally, from curators, museums, and collectors alike. These conversations led to major exhibitions and other projects internationally.”

The 2019 winner will be announced on December 3rd, with either Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani, or Helen Cammock walking away with the glory. After that? It’ll be time to start the whole frenetic, contentious, invigorating process over again, once more.

Scott Indrisek