Selection process, criteria for art prizes need tweaking: Industry experts

Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Singapore) in 2013.PHOTOS: BUSINESS TIMES FILE, SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM, CHIM-POM, ST FILE
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Singapore) in 2013.PHOTOS: BUSINESS TIMES FILE, SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM, CHIM-POM, ST FILE
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Singapore) in 2013.PHOTOS: BUSINESS TIMES FILE, SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM, CHIM-POM, ST FILE
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Singapore) in 2013.PHOTOS: BUSINESS TIMES FILE, SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM, CHIM-POM, ST FILE
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB
Japanese art collective Chim-pom, whose works respond to subjects such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster (above), was the overall winner at this year's Prudential Eye Awards. Artist Stefanie Hauger's Space Odyssey (above left) won the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Singapore) in 2013.PHOTOS: BUSINESS TIMES FILE, SINGAPORE ART MUSEUM, CHIM-POM, ST FILE

From one major visual arts awards - the more than three-decades-old UOB Painting of the Year prize - Singapore now has at least five recognising artists in all fields, including painting, installation, photography and digital media.

The organisers of these awards range from corporations based in Singapore to international art patrons and art fairs.

While the deluge of art prizes is undoubtedly an offshoot of the explosive growth of the art scene, industry insiders are also raising questions about the credibility of some of these awards, criteria for submission and the openness of their selection process.

The glitziest and biggest of these, the Prudential Eye Awards, is now into its second year. It is backed by British- Italian art lovers David and Serenella Ciclitira, in partnership with insurance firm Prudential and Saatchi Gallery.

Purporting to recognise the best emerging artists in the Asia-Pacific, it dangles a top prize of US$50,000 (S$66,820), including the chance to exhibit at the renowned London gallery.

The awards ceremony held at Marina Bay Sands on Jan 20 saw a mixed bag of 13 awards given out - to artists such as India's leading contemporary artist Mithu Sen, art gallery Future Perfect of Singapore which was named the Best Gallery Supporting Emerging Asian Contemporary Art and even an "Award for Visual Culture" for the nation of South Korea, received in person by K-pop star T.O.P of the group BigBang.

A close second in terms of booty is the triennial Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize, started in 2008, which recognises the best recently produced contemporary art in Asia-Pacific and has a top award of $60,000.

Then there is the five-year-old Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu, which awards an annual $30,000 cash prize to an outstanding Singapore photographer.

Even premier contemporary art fair Art Stage Singapore has gotten in on the act, introducing in January the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art in partnership with the Embassy of the United States in Singapore.

Prominent Indonesian artist FX Harsono was the first winner of the award, which confers a US$5,000 cash grant on an artist or curator from South-east Asia who upholds the ideals of freedom in his work.

Contemporary art is not only about artistic excellence, but also an independent spirit and social consciousness, says fair director Lorenzo Rudolfo when asked why Art Stage would want to move into the business of awards.

"I wish that this award will encourage many South-east Asian artists and give them the necessary support to play the important role they (should) have in a modern society. We need their independent contribution in the ground-breaking debates regarding our future," he said.

At least two industry insiders, Singapore-based curator Iola Lenzi and prominent regional art consultant Valentine Willie, are sceptical about the rash of awards.

Ms Lenzi feels the proliferation of art prizes in the last few years is often about organisers leveraging on art for "corporate self-promotion" and that some prizes "seem to focus on brand-name artists who will improve the sponsor's glamour quotient".

As for Mr Willie, he thinks that "whether an artwork or an artist endures depends on many factors, least of which is how many art prizes it won or how many auction records he breaks".

He singles out the Prudential Eye Awards as being less than transparent and seemingly arbitrary in its selection process.

Artists had to be nominated by a pool of more than 100 art experts across the region in order to be considered for the awards. One criticism is that this pool included not just curators and senior artists, but also gallerists with a commercial stake in certain artists.

Two prominent gallerists - Nigel Hurst, director and chief executive of Saatchi Gallery, and Johnson Chang, founder and director of Hong Kong's Hanart TZ Gallery - sat on the seven-member international jury that made the final selection.

Except for the UOB Painting of the Year, the other leading awards also do not select works through an open call. Instead, the works have to be nominated and the nominators are appointed by organisers of the awards.

Without naming any award in particular, Ms Lenzi says what is needed as the art award scene grows is giving artists "genuine access" to prizes through what she calls "fair and clear protocols".

Also, judges need to be named and be from independent art spheres. For instance, a gallerist on a jury can be a conflict of interest, she says.

The other criticism made of the Prudential Eye Awards is that several of the artists honoured - such as Sen and Indonesian painter Christine Ay Tjoe - were given "emerging artist" awards when in fact they are established, mid-career artists.

Prominent New Delhi-based writer and curator Ina Puri tells Life!: "As a member of the art fraternity, I am delighted that Mithu Sen has been recognised for her brilliant work.

"The category of 'emerging artist', however, is confusing because she is an established art practitioner who has been working for a considerable time, as are several of the other artists including Christine Ay Tjoe."

Addressing some of the concerns raised about the Prudential Eye Awards, Mr Niru Ratnam, director of the Prudential Eye Programme and one of the judges, says: "The definition of who is an 'emerging' artist is one that we have been thinking about a lot."

For the awards this year, organisers used the definition broadly to categorise artists with a significant regional reputation who are emerging onto the international stage.

Speaking on the issue of transparency, he says the organisers did not intervene in the process that produced the shortlisted artists.

He admits: "This two-pronged approach did, however, produce some results which erred a little bit towards artists who perhaps were a bit too established. This debate on where one should draw the line with 'emerging' is exactly what prizes should do - the terms are clarified by the ongoing discourse around the prize."

The organisers are looking at putting in place more stringent criteria around the term "emerging" artist as well as tweaking some other rules as the awards move into their third edition next year.

To be fair, in a nascent art scene such as Singapore's, art prizes are also finding their footing.

This can be seen in the fortunes of the annual UOB Painting of the Year award, organised by the United Overseas Bank since 1982, which launched the careers of several noted Singapore artists such as Cultural Medallion recipients Goh Beng Kwan and the late Chua Ek Kay.

In recent years, it has been the subject of controversy, chiefly in 2010 and 2012 when the top prize was awarded to art students barely out of junior college.

In 2012, a win by 17-year-old Esmond Loh, a Hwa Chong Institution student who snagged the prize for his first attempt at an oil painting titled Just Let Me Sleep, made it the third time in eight years that the award went to someone aged 18 or younger.

In response to its detractors, the bank tweaked the criteria and categories for the awards. It now has four country awards, divided into "emerging artist" and "established artist" categories.

Nonetheless, occasional rumblings still remain about its broad definition of an established artist - for example, one can qualify for the "established artist" category if one has had a solo or group exhibition of one's work.

In 2013, German-born, Singapore-based artist Stefanie Hauger won both the UOB Painting of the Year (Singapore) and the UOB South-east Asian Painting of the Year Award for her 170cm by 170cm acrylic on canvas work, Space Odyssey, calling it "a huge turning point" in her career.

Her works have gone on to be exhibited at more art fairs and in gallery shows.

As an artist, she feels awards and exhibitions are "all defining moments in an artist's path and can be totally game-changing".

However, she believes that awards where works are selected through a nomination process, rather than an open call, can put some artists at a distinct disadvantage as getting selected may depend on whom they know and who has seen their works, rather than strictly on the quality of what they produce.

One of the judges for the Signature Art Prize, Singapore Art Museum director Susie Lingham, thinks the increasing number of art awards is a positive sign of the growing support and recognition for the visual arts.

The fact that there are several awards out there, each with a different focus, "allows the works of both established and emerging artists to reach a larger audience, increasing the artists' professional opportunities and strengthening their presence in the international scene", adds Dr Lingham.

It looks like while certain art prizes have drawn their share of brickbats, they are collectively influential and here to stay.

Last week, one of the co-founders of Singapore's Chan Hampe Galleries, Ms Angie Chan, together with her husband Nick Davies, announced a new Chan-Davies Art Prize for final-year students of Lasalle College of the Arts' Fine Arts programme. The prize will include the funding of a solo exhibition.

The other gallerist behind Chan Hampe, Mr Benjamin Hampe, thinks that overall, the growth of the awards scene is a positive development, though what some of them need is "more rigorous selection criteria to make distinctions between emerging, mid-career and established artists".

He adds: "We also need to see if these awards really offer platforms for new talent or if they are for truly established career artists.

"I do not get that sense of clarity at the moment."

deepikas@sph.com.sg


Key visual arts awards

Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu

Founded: 2010

What: The annual prize recognises Singapore's outstanding photographers based on a body of work. It is backed by the world's oldest cognac house, Martell.

Each year, a panel of five nominators from the photography and visual arts scene in Singapore are appointed by the organisers to make a maximum of between eight and 10 submissions. The nominations are assessed by a five-member jury led by French curator of photography, Agnes de Gouvion Saint-Cyr.

Past winners include independent photographers and artists Sherman Ong (2010), Sarah Choo (2013, with her work Hidden Dimension II) and The Straits Times' Neo Xiaobin (2014).

Offers: A top cash prize of $30,000. Two other prizes, The Discernment Awards, give $8,000 each.

UOB Painting of the Year

Founded: 1982

What: The annual competition recognises and promotes painting in South-east Asia. It expanded beyond Singapore to the region in 2010 when it changed the awards criteria. In 2013, the contest rules were tweaked again. Responding to concerns about the fuzziness of the award categories, instead of the two previous categories of "youth" and "open", the contest is now divided into "emerging artist" and "established artist" categories. Anyone can submit works that meet the criteria for the categories.

This year, the regional judging panel had representatives from each of the four participating countries and included Dr Bridget Tracy Tan, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Arts and Art Galleries at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Offers: A South-east Asian painting prize worth US$10,000 (S$13,640) and four country awards of US$25,000 each for Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art

Founded: This year

What: Presented by contemporary art fair Art Stage Singapore and the Embassy of the United States in Singapore, the award recognises an artist or curator from South-east Asia who is actively committed to the ideals of freedom and continually seeks to express these ideals through his or her work.

The award is named after Joseph Balestier, the first American diplomat accredited to Singapore - he was appointed US Consul to Singapore in 1836.

The inaugural award this year went to Indonesian artist FX Harsono. He was one of seven nominees on the shortlist, along with Singapore performance artist Lee Wen.

Offers: A trophy, certificate and grant of US$5,000 (S$6,820).

Prudential Eye Awards

Founded: Last year

What: Now in its second year, the Prudential Eye Awards seek to celebrate and support emerging artistic talent across greater Asia, including the Asia-Pacific, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Not only does it recognise the best emerging artists working with various mediums including drawing, installation, painting, photography and sculpture, but it also has categories recognising leading art institutions as well as exhibitions.

The awards are founded by British-Italian art lovers David and Serenella Ciclitira, in partnership with insurance firm Prudential and London's Saatchi Gallery.

More than 500 nominees submitted their works to a judging panel of seven international art professionals and there were 13 award categories this year. Offers: The overall winner, or Overall Best Emerging Artist, gets US$50,000 (S$68,200) and the chance to exhibit at the prestigious Saatchi Gallery. Other winners receive prizes worth US$20,000 each.

Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize

Founded: 2008

What: Triennial award honouring the most outstanding contemporary artwork from both emerging and distinguished artists over the preceding three years across the Asia-Pacific region.

The by-nomination competition calls upon independent art experts to nominate artworks produced in the last three years. The most recent list of 36 nominators included Hong Kong's influential curator and gallerist Johnson Chang and Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong, as well as Singapore artist Cheo Chai Hiang and home-grown curator Alan Oei.

Works by six Singapore artists were among the 105 nominations from 24 countries and regions vying for the top prize last year. Singapore's Ho Tzu Nyen won the award (for his work, Pythagoras), fending off stiff competition from acclaimed artists such as China's Liu Jianhua, Indonesia's Melati Suryodarmo and India's Ranbir Kaleka.

Offers: Total cash prizes worth $100,000. The value of the top prize was raised by more than 30 per cent last year to $60,000.

The top prize purse grew after the number of its Juror's Choice Awards was reduced from three to two. The Juror's Choice Awards, previously worth $10,000 each, are now $15,000 each. The aim is to make the prize more exclusive and to provide the grand-prize recipient larger winnings.