The SD Art Prize is entering its 8th year and I thought it might be fun to hear a history of why we have an art prize in San Diego. The story starts in 1973 in London.
I arrived in England at that time, worked as a receptionist and then ran an art gallery in the west end. It was a time of miner’s strikes causing black outs and letter bombs from the IRA. I zigzagged my way to work in the west end to avoid mail boxes with suspicious letters hanging out of mail slots. We lit the gallery by candles every other day during electric shortages.
Old master still ruled at Sotheby’s and Christies and Bonhams was a tiny auction house but the oldest started in 1793 and is now merged with Phillips and they also bought the west coast Butterfields in 2002. Impressionist painting were on the rise but very few contemporary artist came up in auctions.
This was all to change when the first Tate Turner Prize was awarded in 1984 to Malcolm Morley, an English artist living in the United States. Receiving awards in the next four years were Howard Hodgkin 1985, Gilbert & George 1986, Richard Deacon1987 Richard Long, 1989. All four were nominated in the first year. It was a private award, but the shortlist was announced. It was controversial from the start.
The Tate now called Tate Britain, in 1988 was the just the Tate Museum. It housed all British made art only. The appointment of Tate Director, Nicholas Serota led to many changes such as the introduction of an annual re-hang and giving priority to modern and contemporary art. During this period the future of the Prize was uncertain. The Turner Prize was modified to have no published shortlist and a solo exhibition was awarded to the winner, Tony Cragg. But in 1990 there was no prize as there was no sponsorship for it and it only sprang back to life in 1991. All four short-listed artists got a show and the audience became more involved. The award ceremony started to be televised. The Notional Lottery system was set up and the arts benefited. Only smokeless coal could be used and the city started to clean all its buildings. The Tate expanded to become Tate Modern and now has several other campuses in the UK. The Tate Prize now rotates to other venues.
Some other artists who have received the prize included Bill Woodrow., Anish Kapooris, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Mach, Paula Rego, Sean Scully, Rachel Whiteread, and Anthony Gormley.
By 1995, the Turner Prize got more and more controversial and more and more attention. Damien Hirst presented his shark tank, Tracy Emin got drunk during the award ceremony, Chris Ofili's used balls of elephant dung to prop up his works. Modern Art prices at the auction house were on the rise. Charles Saachti had loaned work from his collection for the Sensation show and started his own private museum.
When I left England in 1996, contemporary artists were getting prices for their work as high as those of modern art. I discovered that San Diego has wonderful artists but not too many people knew about them. When I formed SDVAN in 2003, I decided that an Art Prize might do something similar for the arts in SD as it had done in the UK. Making artists into art stars and reminding people they could obtain art of excellence in SD were some of the goals.
When Ann Berchtold joined the team in 2005, the idea of an art fair was a tiny seed, but we started working toward the SD Art Prize and in 2006, I got a grant from a foundation on the East Coast to fund the first years of award money. In the context of the Turner Prize we are babies. But now in our eighth year and with the help of Erika Torri and Debra Poteet together with Ann Berchtold I have hopes that Contemporary art and artists can affect the public in San Diego County, someday, on the same scale as the Turner Prize helped catapult contemporary art into the major leagues in the United Kingdom.