Why try to fix the Turner Prize when it ain’t broke?

There is a downside to dropping the age limit of 50 for qualifying artists


This year’s Turner Prize shortlist marks the most significant shift in the award for 25 years: the age limit of 50, established in 1991 and in place ever since, has been abolished. In a press conference on 3 May, the jury’s chair and Tate Britain’s director, Alex Farquharson, said that age limit “originally helped the prize define itself as an award for a breakthrough moment in a more emerging artist’s career. But now this remit is so well established, I think we can safely acknowledge that artists can experience a breakthrough at any age without any risk of the prize becoming a lifetime achievement award”. So now, just as when the prize was inaugurated in the 1980s, any British-born artist, or overseas-born artist living and working in Britain, can be considered for the prize. Immediately, two artists who would have been ineligible for the prize last year are on the shortlist: the painters Hurvin Anderson, 52, and Lubaina Himid, 62, alongside Andrea Büttner, 45, and Rosalind Nashashibi, 43.

For those who remember the early years of the prize, the any-age-goes approach may set alarm bells ringing. The award was set up in 1984 to draw attention to new developments in contemporary art. It was, for the first few years of its existence, both a mess and a flop. The critics hated it, artists seemed embarrassed by its existence, and initially they were given hardly any notice and very little exhibition space to show their work to a bemused public.

Within the first six years, all of the artists on the first shortlist had won the prize. The intention of the people who set it up—the Tate’s then director, Alan Bowness, and its acquisition body the Patrons of New Art—was laudable. But the execution was lamentable.

Then, in 1991, the prize was revived, with new sponsorship from Channel 4 driven by Waldemar Januszczak, then the television station’s head of arts, who in the 1980s had been the Guardian’s art critic and a frustrated observer of the prize’s numerous false starts. The new format he initiated comprised a tight four-artist shortlist, an increase in the prize money, primetime coverage on Channel 4 and, best of all from the artists’ point of view, a proper exhibition in the Tate’s best galleries. 

Crucial among Januszczak’s proposals for the revamped prize was an age limit. In a letter to Januszczak written in 1990, Nicholas Serota, then still relatively new to the Tate directorship, acknowledged a couple of “philosophical difficulties” that had “vexed judges, artists, critics and public alike”, including “the impossibility of comparing artists of established practice and reputation with those only recently emerged into prominence”.

When Serota announced the new Turner Prize format in the catalogue for the 1991 prize, he again expressed the absurdity of this situation. “The decision to exclude artists aged over 50 is a recognition merely of the fact that comparisons are invidious between the achievements of artists of such differing ages as 30 and 70,” he wrote.

In 2002, he stressed that the award “was established as a prize that would bring to the fore younger artists and artists working in new ways. It wasn’t intended to be an objective survey of all artists across all fields, saying: ‘This is the best.’” 

Januszczak and Serota’s formula ensured that the Turner Prize could thrive by tapping into the energy of an emerging generation in the 1990s. And the numbers bear this out. Between 1984 and 1989 (there was no prize in 1990 because the sponsor went bankrupt), of 37 shortlisted artists or collaborative duos (and a couple of administrators—yes, the prize was that confused), many had long-established international reputations and ten were aged over 50. But in the first decade of the new format, just seven of the 40 artists or duos shortlisted were over 40. The average age of a nominated artist in the 1990s was 34.

That decade is seen as the prize’s heyday, when Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Chris Ofili, Douglas Gordon and Steve McQueen were among the winners. It became the most important art prize in Europe and the envy of other institutions for the way it generated enormous media and public interest in contemporary art. I know this because when I worked at the Tate, between 1997 and 2005, I met several museum officials who were exploring how they could replicate the Turner Prize’s success in their own countries.

Crucial to its supremacy was exposing ambitious artists little known outside the art world to a wider public. Whiteread, when first shortlisted in 1991, and McQueen, in 1999, were shown in the Turner Prize long before achieving wider fame. Ending the age limit, and ushering hundreds more artists into eligibility, could imperil this most dynamic element of the prize. It’s worth noting that Januszczak, who proposed the age limit, tweeted that its demise meant “we can go back to the bad old days when [the prize] was a distinguished service medal”.

Of course, some artists “emerge” late in life, the most frequently cited example at present being Phyllida Barlow, who balanced a teaching career with art-making for decades but only gained international acclaim when she became a full-time artist. Himid is another example: although one of her works has been in the Tate collection since 1995 and regularly on display since, she has not until recently received the wide recognition she deserved as a pioneer of a particularly socially engaged painting practice. This year’s two-venue retrospective of her work in Bristol and Oxford went some way to mitigating that, and has prompted her appearance on the shortlist. 

There’s no doubt that Himid’s is a powerful body of work, but does it fulfil the prize’s stated criteria of recognising “new developments in contemporary art”, or reward a work over a career? Some of the jury members’ statements when the prize was announced suggest a wooliness in this area. Mason Leaver-Yap, a curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, said: “There’s a way in which certain artists for various reasons might become visible later on in their careers, but their practice might still represent something refreshing, interesting and engaging.” But she also added that “we felt that [Himid’s] work brought a new maturity to the Turner Prize”. She also said: “It’s good to not fetishise newness, and think solely in terms of finding new voices, but actually [recognising] voices that have something to say, and have had something to say, but may not have received the national visibility that they deserve.” Emily Pethick, the director of the Showroom gallery in London, suggested there was a resistance to shortlisting young artists. “Sometimes it can be too early and artists aren’t ready for that level of attention that things like the Turner prize bring,” she said. “So we wanted to bring artists that we felt have a really established practice that can hold up to the level of attention and the wider visitorship that something like the Turner Prize gets.”

If this were the criteria in the 1990s, would we have seen Whiteread, Hirst, Gordon et al, all in their twenties and making work as good as anything they have gone on to make since, on the shortlist? And if juries are considering the readiness or not of an artist for the prize, and how established their work is, is their attention being diverted away from finding the most outstanding work being made in that year, or looking for the “new developments” the prize was set up to promote? For me, these questions reinforce a feeling that the rule change, despite its commendable recognition that creativity and artistic originality do not stop at 50, makes the jury’s job even trickier.

The fact is that no prize competition between creative people can be perfect. But perhaps, in the past 25 years, the Turner Prize has been the least flawed, becoming a crucial element in the revolution in Britain’s attitude to contemporary art and in establishing a platform for young artists to gain national prominence. Of course, one shortlist since the rule change is too small a sample size. But to prevent the Turner Prize returning to the vexing conditions Serota identified in 1990, and the lifetime-achievement predictability feared by Januszczak, the 2018 jury, and those beyond, must be vigilant.