Biennial Museums News USA

Controversy drives Los Angeles prize sponsor to up the ante

Hammer Museum’s “Made in LA” biennial will award a total of $150,000 to three artists this year

Jarl Mohn (above) and his wife Pamela have written cheques to fund two additional prizes for the 2014 Made in LA biennial

When the Hammer Museum unveiled its “Made in LA” biennial two years ago, the decision to award $100,000 to one artist through a combination of jury selection and online voting became an unlikely lightning rod for criticism. Some local artists were outraged that such a substantial prize would be decided by popular vote, à la American Idol. Others blasted as elitist the move to have an expert jury narrow down the candidates to a pool of five artists, before the public could pick a favourite.

Now the Hammer is responding to those complaints by trying another approach, creating separate juried and popular awards for its 2014 biennial, opening 15 June. The $100,000 top prize—still known as the Mohn Award and which still comes with a monographic publication on the artist’s work—will be chosen by an expert panel. This year, it is made up of Artforum’s former editor-in-chief Jack Bankowsky, the MCA Chicago curator Naomi Beckwith and the Berkeley Art Museum curator Apsara DiQuinzio.

The museum is also creating two new awards of $25,000 each: one for career achievement (or, as the Hammer puts it, “brilliance and resilience”) chosen by the jury, and another for favourite artist selected by the public through the online voting platform.

The Mohn Award remains one of the most valuable prizes for visual artists anywhere, matching the amount of the Whitney’s Bucksbaum Award tied to its own biennial in New York and surpassing the Turner Prize from the Tate in London. It’s named after the art collector Jarl Mohn, the DJ-turned-entertainment-executive who with his wife Pamela pledged $500,000 to sponsor the award for over a decade as a way of calling attention to Los Angeles artists. He is also writing the cheques for the additional prizes, which he describes as a hard-earned solution to the problems faced the last time around.

“I really get nervous with the word compromise—often it means you end up with something watered down, not as good, and nobody’s happy. I see this more as a collaboration,” Mohn says, going on to explain why they decided not to split the $100,000 but up the ante. “I’m committed to making sure we stay with the big number—and it’s a lot easier to explain and promote.”

In 2012, “Made in LA” featured 60 artists based in the Los Angeles. area. The Botswana-born Meleko Mokgosi, who did not have gallery representation when selected for the biennial, won the $100,000 award.

This year’s edition, organised by the Hammer’s chief curator Connie Butler and the outside writer-curator Michael Ned Holte, is expected to have about half as many artists. The curators say they will release the names of their picks by the end of February.

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