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A Nice Conflict of Interest If You Can Get It

The Turner Prize Gang Rides Again!

by CHARLES THOMSON

The Tate gallery has just succeeded this week in once again awarding the Turner Prize to itself, a fact completely unremarked on by the media. Laure Prouvost, the winner, was nominated for a video Wantee which the Tate commissioned for its  Schwitters in Britain exhibition earlier this year. (She was also, the Tate website adds as an afterthought, nominated for an installation at the Whitechapel Gallery.)

It might seem to the average spectator an odd, not to mention highly dubious, outcome for a national gallery to stage a national prize and end up awarding the prize to its own show, but this is nothing new. In 2007, Mark Wallinger won the prize for his installation State Britain – an artwork again commissioned by the Tate itself. In the last 23 years, the Tate has managed to include its own shows as an “outstanding exhibition” for eleven nominees (including four winners). Another nominee this year was Tino Sehgal for two shows, one of which was These Associations at Tate Modern.

The Turner Prize is intended to showcase “new developments in contemporary British art”. If the Tate nominates a show it has already previously staged, it can hardly claim the repeat as “new” any more. Surely the original Tate show of the work was intended to do exactly what the Turner Prize is now required to do with the work – namely give it a wider public platform.

The fact that the Tate can happily duplicate its previous presentation is an implicit statement of the failure of its normal shows to reach the audience it thinks the work merits. It begins to look as though the institution needs the prize to give credence to what would otherwise be a relative failure.

But, if the Turner Prize is to genuinely showcase new developments, it should not regurgitate something that the Tate – or for that matter another major institution – has already shown. It should have the initiative to go out there and find the previously genuinely unacknowledged in one of the hundreds of small galleries the length and breadth of the land.

As it happens – as David Lee in The Jackdaw magazine has catalogued – there is a depressingly narrow number of top end commercial galleries from which the nominees originate, examples being the Lisson Gallery and the White Cube, hugely profitable organisations, which are quite capable of doing their own PR without a freebie courtesy of the public purse.

The Tate pays lip service to conflict of interest concerns (particularly since it was hauled over the coals by the Charity Commission for its notorious purchase of its own serving trustee Chris Ofili’s work in 2005), but conflicts of interest nevertheless remain a staple feature of the Turner Prize. The number of times they occur is staggering.

One of the nominees this year was David Shrigley for a show at the Hayward Gallery, which is run by Ralph Rugoff, one of this year’s jury members. Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain and chair of the Turner Prize jury, attempted to dismiss the accusation of conflict of interest with Rugoff, by insisting that all the judges had agreed on Shrigley’s inclusion – thus inadvertently confirming Rugoff’s complicity. The normal duplicity is to pretend that they have left the room.

In fact in 1997, Curtis herself was in the same position, when she was a Turner Prize juror and also curator of the Henry Moore Institute, while one of the shortlisted artists was Gillian Wearing (the eventual winner), nominated for shows including one at the Henry Moore Studio.

A cross-referencing of Turner Prize judges and nominees reveals that such links have been a regular occurrence since the Prize’s reformulation in 1991. In 1992, Robert Hopper, director of the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust, was on the jury. Alison Wilding was nominated for shows including one at the Trust Studio. Another cited show for Wilding was at Tate Liverpool. The Turner Prize chair was Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate.

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Directors of the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, have twice been in juries where their own shows were featured. Altogether this situation has occurred 21 times with various directors and curators (including the Tate directors). There were also other conflicts of interest. In 1996, photographer Craigie Horsfield was a nominee, and one of the judges was James Lingwood, whose dealer wife represented Horsfield at the Frith Street Gallery. Andrew Renton, a judge in 2006, also acted as curator for the Cranford Collection, for which he had purchased work by three of the nominees, one of them also in his personal collection.

In 2007, Nathan Coley was on the board of The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh around the time he was nominated by a jury including the gallery’s director, Fiona Bradley. Daniel Birnbaum, a juror in 2008, was the director of the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Frankfurt, where that year’s winner, Mark Leckey, was professor of film studies (and also partner of a Tate curator who has curated the prize).

The presence of these conflicts suggests that others remain as yet unknown. The fact that so many have come to light in recent years can be attributed to disclosures forced from the Tate under the Freedom of Information Act since its implementation in 2005. Significantly, it was not even until 2006 that judges were asked by Sir Nicholas Serota (then chair of the jury) to disclose any potential conflict of interest and then only on the day the Prize was awarded.

Such problems did not trouble Andrew Renton, who said, “I think the more qualified a person is to be a judge, the more conflict there is going to be,” on which basis he apparently did not seem to see himself as qualified to be a juror in the first place: “The judges have put the artists in the limelight and their values have gone up, but I can deny any conflict of interest as far as I’m concerned.”

Richard Wright, winner in 2009, said, “The art scene is a very small world and everybody knows everybody” – which just goes to show what a restricted and cliquey part of the art scene he inhabits – along with the rest of the Turner Prize gang.

Charles Thomson is co-founder of the Stuckists art group.