Founded in 1984, the Turner Prize is awarded annually to the ‘most outstanding contribution’ to British art that took place in the last year.

Gillian Wearing The Garden 1997 © Gillian Wearing and The Paragon Press

The Turner Prize: Early Years

In 1984 Tate Gallery’s ‘Patrons of New Art’ collective founded the Turner Prize to encourage a wider interest in contemporary art. The prize name was taken from the nineteenth century British painter JMW Turner, who sparked controversy in his day, but has since gone on to become one of Britain’s most celebrated artists. Photorealist painter Malcolm Morley was awarded the first prize in 1984, and subsequent winners included well established artists Gilbert & George, Howard Hodgkin, Tony Cragg and Richard Long.

Selection process and exhibition

When the Turner Prize was launched, six artists were selected initially with one winner; in 1991 the shortlist was narrowed to four. Though the selecting panel of judges changes every year, the prize is chaired by Tate Britain. The four selected artists make work for an exhibition organised by Tate. Originally held in a Tate venue, since 2011 off-site locations have been included, such as the BALTIC in Gateshead and Tramway in Glasgow. The winner is awarded £25,000, with £5,000 going to each of the shortlisted artists. In 1991 an age restriction of under fifty was put on nominees, however in 2017 this stipulation was removed to include artists of any age, acknowledging that artists can have a breakthrough at any stage in their career.

Provoking discussion around contemporary art

The prize is intended to promote public discussion about contemporary British art and has developed a reputation for receiving both positive and negative media attention, with artists, critics and members of the public questioning the role of art and the Turner Prize itself. In 1989, art critic Matthew Collings said on The Late Show:

‘The confusion of the Turner Prize and what it’s supposed to do reflects the problems that Tate has – whether it’s a posh museum that remains aloof . . . or whether it’s really in there in the centre of contemporary art'

Public response and criticism

Public reactions to the prize have often been confrontational. When Tracey Emin was nominated for the prize in 1999 for her installation, My Bed, 1998, two performance artists, Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi jumped on her bed to ‘improve’ the work. In 2001, the artist group known as the Stuckists dressed as clowns and flashed their torches to rally against the lack of ‘traditional’ media portrayed in the award. Feminists have also protested at the prize’s previous lack of female shortlisted artists, although more recently, in 1993 Rachel Whiteread became the first female to win and in 1997 the first all-female shortlist was made. Birmingham-born conceptual artist Gillian Wearing won the prize that year. When Damien Hirst won the award in 1995 with his Mother and Child Divided, featuring a sculpture of a bisected cow and calf, the exhibition figures were larger than ever, due to the work’s notoriety.

In recent years many Scottish artists have been nominated or awarded the Turner Prize, with the majority either from Glasgow, or graduated from Glasgow School of Art. In 1996 Douglas Gordon scooped the prize for his 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, a rear projected installation of Hitchcock’s iconic horror slowed down to last an entire day. Other Scottish winners are Richard Wright, Susan Philipsz and Martin Boyce, with nominees including Christine Borland, Jim Lambie, Ciara Phillips, Karla Black, Cathy Wilkes, Lucy Skaer and Nathan Coley.


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