On the meaning of prizes in the visual arts

The Belgian Art Prize, one of the most important art prizes in Belgium, was cancelled for the second year in a row. The 2020 finalists – Agentschap, Sammy Baloji, Saddie Choua, Jacqueline Mesmaeker and Joëlle Tuerlinckx – had reservations about the point of the prize and entered into discussions with the organisers who were unable to reach an agreement. What issues are at stake and what is the history of this type of art prize?

Flanders Arts Institute makes a comparison with similar prizes in neighbouring countries: the Prix de Rome (the Netherlands), the Marcel Duchamp Prize (France) and the Turner Prize (United Kingdom). We hope in this way to contribute to the discussion about the relationship between artists and the organisations that award the prizes, and how both (can) work together.

Art prizes and cultural policy

Art prizes are organised by governments or the private sector in order to discover emerging talent, to crown oeuvres and to stimulate debate and public interest in art. In this, they always play a role in the process of valuing and canonising. They allow artists to acquire a name and attract the attention of curators, potential buyers and clients. They are thus situated in a context of kings and governments, clients, collectors, academies, art institutions, artists and critics – and the mutual tension between these groups –, and are therefore regularly called into question.

For centuries prizes have been awarded to artists by, among others, heads of state, government-linked academies or private clients. The Prix de Rome, for example, was awarded from 1666 by the Académie Royale de peinture et de sculpture, under the impetus of King Louis XIV, and included a stipend with which the laureate could work for three to five years in Rome at the Académie de France. The prize was highly sought after.

In the 19th century, prizes were repeatedly criticised because the system would confirm the power of well-known artists, the art academies (‘academism’) and the patrons (who, moreover, were often interconnected). It also maintains existing value frameworks and offers insufficient breathing room for new art practices and movements.

Prize policy in the 20th century

When developing cultural policy for the visual arts in the 20th century, governments not only invested in education and museums, but also in direct support for artists. This was done in the form of art purchases and social support, but art prizes also become a tool for governments to support artists.

In the 1980s and 1990s, most Western countries evolved towards a development-oriented policy: grants were no longer linked to a result, but were intended to give artists time and material to develop their oeuvre. Promising projects were also subsidised. The assessment was made by experts from the field, whose composition became more and more diverse over the years (age, gender, cultural background, knowledge of sub-disciplines), in order to be as open as possible to new practices and generations. Sometimes the government retained one annual prize to supplement the subsidy policy.

Prize policy in Flanders

We also see the same development in Flanders. In the 1980s, 17 oeuvre prizes were awarded annually to Flemish artists for a total of approximately 44,000 euros per year. In addition, the government also organised promotional exhibitions for young talent.

Since 1992, Flanders has been focusing on a development-oriented policy for the visual arts with a purchasing policy, grants, project subsidies, international projects, contributions towards travel and accommodation, foreign residencies and support for galleries that promote Flemish artists at important foreign art fairs. [1]

Since 2003, the Flemish Culture Awards – now the Ultimas [2] – have been awarded by the Flemish Minister of Culture to leading artists, organisations and theatre companies. These are quality labels that acknowledge the cultural importance of the work of the laureates. In addition, cities and private foundations also award prizes.

Legitimising art prizes in a changed visual arts field

The expansion of the art market and of public art organisations, as well as the transition to a development-oriented vision of supporting artists, are having a major influence on the role, objectives and form of art prizes. You can ask whether there is still a need for such prizes in a context of residencies, studios, art spaces, museums, biennials, galleries and art fairs. What is their added value and raison d’être?

We chart these changes – and the accompanying discussions – on the basis of four prizes: the Belgian Art Prize (B), the Prix de Rome (NL), the Turner Prize (UK) and the Marcel Duchamp Prize (F). Each of these awards nominates and crowns nominated artists who work in the country, and invites them to create new work.

Not young, but innovative

The Young Belgian Art Prize was launched in 1950 by collectors and patrons to promote and support young art. Over the years, however, sufficient initiatives have developed around emerging talent. Which is why in 2016 the prize was transformed into the Belgian Art Prize – without age limit – for “talented leading Belgian or resident artists in Belgium to further develop their career and strengthen their national and international recognition.” (belgianartprize.be)

The Turner Prize (1984) and the Marcel Duchamp Prize (2000) also have no age limit. The age limit for the Dutch Prix de Rome (1807) is 40 years. This limit is a point of discussion. Terms such as young and emerging are felt as paternalistic and have a market-oriented character: as if innovation and experimentation are the privilege of young artists, and careers run linearly to the top with support needed only at the start. Sector and policy, however, are based on lifelong development.

Media and visibility as added value

Prizes have a potential communication value, for the artists as well as for the visual arts sector. The Turner Prize is the most mediatised, and often generates an animated debate about art. To enhance this visibility, the organisers try to organise the prize in collaboration with a large public institution and with the media:

  • The Belgian Art Prize is organised by the foundation La Jeune Peinture Belge/De Jonge Belgische Schilderkunst, in close collaboration with Bozar.
  • The Turner Prize in collaboration with Tate and the BBC
  • The Prix de Rome with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
  • The Marcel Duchamp Prize with the Centre Pompidou.

In addition, these partners often have the necessary expertise with regard to procedure and judging, and they give the prize a public character (as a counterbalance to the art market and the collectors).

Turner Prize 2019 nominees: Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani, Helen Cammock and Lawrence Abu Hamdan (c) Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images for Turner Contemporary

Striving for honest relationships, also within a prize

A development-oriented vision of supporting artists means that you as sector (both private and public) provide the right conditions for developing their talent and creating works of art. There is a need for time, workspace, production resources and professional support.

Artists must be able to buy time to concentrate on their work, for example through a grant or remuneration. In addition, they also need a budget for the production and presentation of new work. [3] The hierarchical and employee/employer relationship – in which artists stand at the bottom of the ladder, invest themselves fully, and ought to be happy simply to participate in an exhibition that might increase the symbolic and financial value of their work – is gradually being replaced today by a horizontal relationship, with fair access for all.

Prix de Rome

Some prizes also are also making the transition. For example, the 4 artists on the shortlist for the Dutch Prix de Rome each receive a fixed working budget of 9,000 euros for a work period of 5 months, which is intended to free up time and realize the new work. In addition, the artists can charge up to 8,250 euros in production costs based on invoices from third parties (for example, renting a temporary studio, equipment, specialised workplaces or services). In addition, they can also have five meetings with a coach or a substantive sparring partner of their choice (for example, an artist, filmmaker, curator or practitioner of a specific craft). The exhibition budget contributes to the presentation of the work and to a publication. The final winner will receive 40,000 euros and a three-month work period at the American Academy in Rome.

Marcel Duchamp Prize

The Marcel Duchamp Prize foresees 30,000 euros for the production of a new work for each of the 4 nominated artists, and covers the costs of presenting their work for three months in Gallery 4 of Centre Pompidou (650 m2), including a catalogue. An international jury awards the prize of 35,000 euros based on that exhibition.

Turner Prize

The Turner Prize foresees 5,000 British pounds per nominated artist for production and remuneration, and 25,000 pounds for the winner.

Belgian Art Prize

The Belgian Art Prize foresees a contribution of 5,000 euros to the costs for the production of new work. In addition, the organisation provides for the presentation in Bozar and a catalogue. The prize is 25,000 euros, the ING audience prize is 10,000 euros.

A production budget of 5,000 euros or pounds per artist assumes that the artists themselves invest something in the production, and that they compete with each other to possibly recover their investments if they win the prize. This was one of the reasons why the nominated artists of the Belgian Art Prize 2020 entered into discussions with the organizers in the form of ‘suggestions in 7 points from the finalists of the BAP 2020’.

The Belgian Art Prize unilaterally decided to cancel. The press release from the BAP states that the artists “set conditions and requirements that include changes to the rules, the partnership agreements and the organisation of the Prize. (…) Since no agreement was reached, the organisers of the Belgian Art Prize decided to cancel the 2020 edition.”

For the same reason, the nominees of the Turner Prize 2019 collectively proposed to the jury to distribute the prize among the 4 nominees.

At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity – in art as in society. (…) The other reason is that we genuinely didn’t feel like in the nature of the works we make the competition format worked because it would pit prescience over the contribution that we make as artists.


Transparency between artists and art organisations

The debate about remuneration is taking place worldwide, partly because the socio-economic position of visual artists is one of the worst of all art disciplines. [4] In most countries there is a consensus between the government and the arts sector about the need to remunerate artists, and to separate this from the (co)production budget and the costs of presentation, reflection and mediation. [5]

Good cooperation between artists and art organisations also means that all parties engage in dialogue and create mutual transparency about conditions, resources, expenditures, sources of financing, revenues and expectations. The art prizes make these conditions transparent in rules and procedures that are published online. It is a challenge to work in an artist-oriented way within this context. [6]

In addition to remuneration and resources for production, other issues also play a role in working in the arts without harming people or nature. Examples include sustainable travel and material use, the use of services for which people are fairly reimbursed, and the origin of the financing.

For example, artists have recently refused to take part in exhibitions in museums such as MoMA PS1 and the Whitney Museum of American Art, because they are sponsored by companies involved in the war industry, pollution or exploitation. [7]

The artists nominated for the Turner Prize 2019 objected to a homophobic sponsor, just as the nominated artists of the Belgian Art Prize had issues with main sponsor ING, against which a complaint is ongoing with the OECD. [8] With these actions, the artists cannot change the world immediately, but they are consistent concerning the way they want to work fairly, and are asking art organisations to create ethical frameworks. Such a change takes time and starts with the actions of artists and art organisations.

Diversity of age, gender, practice and cultural background

Another issue is diversity: how can you as a sector be aware of diversity in practices, age, gender and cultural background? How can you break open dominant trends and existing power mechanisms (of study programmes, art dealers, museums, galleries, art fairs and curators)?

The intention of the procedure and the composition of the jury are crucial to building in this equilibrium and to guaranteeing checks and balances internally. This avoids the prize serving the interests of one or a limited number of parties, or too strongly confirming the existing power relationships and trends.

Most prizes use a mix of domains and expertise. For the Turner Prize, Tate puts together a jury each year that consists of a mix of art organisations, curators, critics and writers (so no gallerists, collectors or dealers). At least one member is a foreigner. The jury selects the nominations based on its own list and a list of artists nominated by the public via the Tate website.

For the first 3 editions, only one female artist was nominated, and it was only in 1993 that Rachel Whiteread became the first woman to win the prize. The diversity of the Turner Prize is a matter of diversity in the jury, according to Linsey Young, curator of the British contemporary art department at Tate Britain:

The Prize has gone through quite subtle changes, and the lists are certainly getting more diverse and obviously it reflects what’s happening in the wider contemporary art community. That diversity is helped along by an eclectic, thoughtful judging panel, which now includes an outlier in the mix — someone who is engaged with art, but not in a direct, professional sense. Past examples include the novelist Tom McCarthy in 2018, or fashion journalist Charlie Porter on this year’s panel.


The Mondriaan Fund always invites a broadly composed group of scouts to nominate two candidates each. In addition, third parties can also submit names, from which the international jury ultimately nominates 4 artists.

For the Marcel Duchamp Prize, collectors and art lovers choose 4 artists. They create new work on the basis of which a jury awards the prize.

The Belgian Art Prize invites some 80 art professionals and collectors to each propose 5 artists from which an international jury nominates 4 artists. They are asked to present new work, after which the jury chooses a winner.

In 2018, controversy arose over the 4 nominated male artists for the Belgian Art Prize. [9] This led to a debate about the procedure and the need for more diversity among the nominators and jury. The organisers set up an advisory committee for the 2020 edition to create a renewed panel that better represents the diversity within the visual arts ecosystem. In this way, the organisers selected jury members who are involved in the contemporary art scene and who have different backgrounds and engage in a variety of activities in both the public and private sectors. This was also reflected in a remarkably more diverse list of nominees for the Belgian Art Prize 2020.


Finally, the question arises as to the national character of these prizes in an art world that is transnational. This issue runs parallel with the country pavilions at the Venice Biennale. The Belgian Art Prize is aimed at Belgian artists, the Prix de Rome at Dutch artists, the Marcel Duchamp Prize at French artists and the Turner Prize at British artists. But each of the prizes extends the concept of nationality to artists who reside in the country or who are in touch with the art scene of a country. The artists who won the Turner Prize 2019 also commented on this issue:

The artists referred to the significance of the Turner prize – which is for a British artist working in Britain – seeking to “expand what it means to be British”, and said their work sought to take a stand against isolation and exclusion in a hostile environment with a “symbolic gesture of cohesion”.THE GUARDIAN, 3 DECEMBER 2019

Prizes remain important, but like all other forms of support for artists and social debate on art, it is important that they are open and transparent, rid themselves of traces of paternalism, relate fairly to artists, and serve to highlight the significance of artists and art in society. This shift to working honestly and ethically in the arts requires the patience and empathy to discuss this with each other, but that should not prevent us from working on it now.


[1] Verhack, Valerie, “Het Vlaamse beeldende kunstbeleid” [Flemish visual arts policy], in: Frisse lucht, lange adem. Historiek, cijfers en scenario’s van het beeldende kunstveld in Vlaanderen, BAM 2011, p.4.

[2] ultimas.be

[3] About the socio-economic position of artists and the role of development in their careers, see Flanders Arts Institute (ed.), Landschapstekening Kunsten 2019. Ontwikkelingsperspectieven voor de kunsten anno 2019 [Landscape Sketch of the Arts 2019: Development perspectives for the arts in the year 2019], Flanders Arts Institute 2019, pp. 149-165.

[4] Hesters, Delphine, Loont passie? Een onderzoek naar de sociaal-economische positie van professionele kunstenaars in Vlaanderen – Samenvatting [Does passion pay? An investigation into the socio-economic position of professional artists in Flanders – Summary], 2016, pp.15-18.

[5] In the Netherlands there is the Artist’s Honorarium, read more about remuneration in the UK and in France.

[6] Read more about the Charter Fair Practices of oKo, the Dutch Fair Practice Code, the Fair Art Almanac of the State of the Arts, and the Charter for the performing artist.

[7] Bishara, Hakim, “Artist Phil Collins Withdraws From MoMA PS1 Exhibition in Solidarity With Prison Divestment”, Hyperallergic, 30 October 2019.

[8] The statement of the artists refers to Fairfin.

[9] See for example the open letter “Response to the BelgianArtPrize exclusionary shortlist 2019” from 2018.

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