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Is the Turner Prize Actually Any Good For Artists?

Britain’s most controversial art award brings fame and cash, but the real rewards lie elsewhere.

Depending on how you view it, the Turner Prize has been good, bad, ugly and controversial. Launched in 1984 to promote British contemporary art, that brief has been fulfilled entirely. Everyone from cabbies to columnists developed strong opinions on the merits and demerits of Tracey Emin (nominated, 1999) and Damien Hirst (winner, 1995), as if they were prospective England footballers rather than young British artists, known collectively as the YBAs.

In 2001, a year after it opened, Tate Modern, symbolic HQ of the YBAs, had become the world’s most visited art museum and the UK’s third most visited attraction of any kind. Grayson Perry, 2003 Turner Prize winner, is now an accessible critic of and commentator on the national psyche, through the previously inaccessible and archaic mediums of pottery and tapestry.

In recent years, the Turner Prize has seemed a quieter affair. Perhaps the press and public got used to the shock of the not-so-new. Each autumn, as the nominees and an accompanying exhibition are announced ahead of the prize award in December, two questions are inevitably asked. One is that hoary old chestnut will again fall from the tree into the laps of a waiting press: But Is It Art? The other, asked more often inside the art world than outside, is what it actually does for artists. Do they benefit from winning the prize?

Past auction results suggest a bump in price of at least 25 per cent two years after an artist wins the prize

“I think a certain sort of artist can benefit,” says Francesca Gavin, a contemporary curator. “Grayson Perry was a perfect winner because he’s great in public, his work is easy to understand and he’s so good at describing what he does but for others the sense of obligation, of interviews and scrutiny is not so welcome.”

Everyone, though, loves a windfall and every artist outside the superstar bracket will welcome the cash. But the money isn’t megabucks compared to prices often paid for work (Grayson Perry’s pots regularly go for £70,000 at auction, his large tapestries much more). The prize fund since 2004 has been £40,000, with the winner receiving £25,000 and three runners-up £5,000 each. It’s a figure that makes a dent in studio rent, materials and allows an artist the rare luxury of being able to crank up the heating in winter, but it’s not life-changing.

Julian Opie, an artist who declined showing and being nominated for the prize in the past said, “I think the impact on one’s career is overplayed. Most of those nominated are known in the art world anyway. It’s a bit of a fantasy that one show can have this great effect.” Sarah Lucas, a contemporary of Opie, Emin and Hirst, also declined her nomination, describing the prize as, “a lot of aggravation for very little”.

The Turner Prize, then, is not about the prize money but may yet be useful for spreading the word and boosting prices, both in the primary market – from the galleries who represent the artists – and in the secondary market at auction. “I think there is always a positive uplift from the Turner Prize,” says Katharine Arnold, a director at Christie’s, “particularly when an artist is nominated and there is a corresponding auction with work from a nominee being offered around the same moment.”

But Arnold notes that one Turner-winning swallow does not make a summer, saying that “to be the winner is hugely prestigious and is a sign of endorsement by judges who are key figures in the art world. That being said, the market is sustained longer term by consistent good quality.” The art market’s lack of pricing transparency is fabled, but past auction results (the most public display of value) suggest a bump of at least 25 per cent two years after winning the prize. Whether this is because those artists have also enjoyed a blockbuster survey show at Tate Modern or been taken on by the businesslike Gagosian Gallery is open to interpretation.

That idea of consistency and quality of work over the long term has come into focus this year, as the upper age limit for Turner Prize-nominated artists has been abolished. From 1991 onwards, artists had to be below 50 years old to be eligible but in 2017, the four nominated artists range in age from 43 to 62. The prize is now more likely to be awarded for a body of work, for consistent practice, for standing for something. “I think this is a fantastic move,” says Arnold, “especially when a career as an artist sees so many phases; recognition of talent should not be circumscribed by time.”

It should not be forgotten that a Turner Prize win allows artists (and their gallerists) to have a valuable moment in the spotlight. “I was in the garden of the Hirschorn Museum in Washington last year and – hey presto! – there was the Susan Philipsz playing,” says The Art Newspaper’s Georgina Adam, of the 2010 Turner-winning sound installation, “I can’t quite imagine the Hirschorn would have heard of Susan Philipsz if it weren’t for the Turner Prize, so it obviously helps some artists in terms of commissions as well as acquisitions.”

However, Adam is quick to point out that the publicity won from the prize does not work for everyone, “It’s difficult to generalise but, for example, Tomma Abts never became a Damien Hirst despite winning in 2006,” she says, “but then Abts doesn’t exactly make the sort of work [abstract oil paintings] that appeals to a wider audience.” In a purely financial sense, Adam also says that winners and galleries with good business sense do well after winning. “Very simply, if there’s not enough supply, it’s not good for your market.”

Winning the Turner Prize, then, is a good party and a nice cash injection but just another brick in the wall of a mature contemporary artist’s career. The rest of that wall is built up with work bought by notable collectors and national institutions, international commissions and, with any luck, becoming one of those artists talked about with reverence, one of those about whose work both buyers and journalists alike are too scared to ask, “how much?” Francesca Gavin puts it more simply still: “The Turner Prize isn’t really for people in the art world.”

Robert Bound is Culture Editor of Monocle magazine and presents Culture With Robert Bound on Monocle 24 radio.

The Turner Prize 2017 exhibition is at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull from September 26–January 7, 2018, with the prize awarded on December 5. Tate Britain in London has a career retrospective of Rachel Whiteread, who in 1993 became the first woman to win the Turner Prize, until January 21, 2018.