Tate Britain has decided to cancel the most high-profile award in British art for only the second time in its history. The Turner prize 2020 was due to take place in the autumn, but it will adopt a very different format this year in response to the unprecedented upheaval caused by Covid-19.
In June, the expert jury will instead award “Turner bursaries” to ten artists, worth £10,000 each. The museum said it hoped “to help support a larger selection of artists through this period of profound disruption and uncertainty”.
Launched in 1984, Tate Britain would normally hold an annual exhibition of the nominated artworks and award £40,000 to a contemporary British artist. The prize has only been cancelled once before in 1990, when the sponsor unexpectedly declared bankruptcy. This is not, however, the first time it has been split between several finalists; last year the four shortlisted artists chose to divide the prize money between themselves as a statement of artistic unity.
Scrapping this year’s event will inevitably disappoint many art lovers, although it is not wholly unsurprising. Throughout 2020 a plethora of major global events have been cancelled due to the outbreak of coronavirus, including Art Basel Hong Kong, Cannes International Film Festival, Glastonbury and the Olympics.
“Gallery closures and social distancing measures are vitally important, but they are also causing huge disruption to the lives and livelihoods of artists,” explained Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and chair of the Turner Prize jury. “The practicalities of organising a Turner Prize exhibition are impossible in the current circumstances, so we have decided to help support even more artists during this exceptionally difficult time.”
The often controversial award was named after the Romantic artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), an equally contentious figure known for his innovative style. “I think JMW Turner, who once planned to leave his fortune to support artists in their hour of need, would approve of our decision,” remarked Farquharson.
Shortlisted over the last twelve months, the winning artists will now be selected through a virtual meeting. This year’s jury includes Richard Birkett curator at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts; Sarah Munro, the director of Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art at Gateshead; Fatos Ustek, the director of Liverpool Biennial; and designer and curator Duro Olowu.
Farquharson acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances we are all finding ourselves living through, adding “I appreciate visitors will be disappointed that there is no Turner Prize this year, but we can all look forward to it returning in 2021.”