A decade ago, just a handful of awards conferred prestige on artists: the Turner Prize (for British art), the MacArthur (for creative genius in the U.S.), and the Archibald (for portraiture in Australia). But in recent years the number of contemporary-art prizes available has multiplied faster than new film festivals; in the last quarter of 2009 alone, at least a dozen new awards were launched in the U.S. and U.K. They are bankrolled by unfamiliar names like Abraaj, Sovereign, Pictet, and Pinchuk, as well as big, established brands like Hugo Boss, which offers a $100,000 prize in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum. And their mandates are diverse: the two-year-old, $95,000 Prix Pictet celebrates photography with an ecological message, while the $18,000 Cricket Art Prize, started last year by an Australian tycoon, honors works about his favorite sport.
Fundamentally, the proliferation of new prizes marks a dramatic shift in how patrons of culture are choosing to support new art. It comes at a time when many major museums have had to cancel shows or drastically cut staff to make up for precipitous declines in private contributions and endowment income. "There is a trend towards philanthropists wanting to control their donations," says Sarah Thornton, a London-based sociologist and author of the bestselling book Seven Days in the Art World. In 2008, for instance, a giant Dubai investment firm founded the $1 million-a-year Abraaj Capital Art Prize to honor five artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. In December, Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk's eponymous art foundation launched two awards: one for the top artists of his homeland, and the Future Generation Art Prize for artists under 35 from anywhere in the world, which promises $100,000 and the chance to be mentored by art superstars like Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, who serve on the jury.
Such prizes benefit patrons and recipients alike. "An increasing number of awards seem sponsored by companies, which hope to burnish their own corporate brands," says Marisa Bartolucci, editorial director of New York's Louise Blouin Media, the influential international art-publications group. "While their interest in art might be entirely mercenary, the prize money and promotion they provide can be invaluable." For artists just starting out, the honor can help attract the attention of powerful gallerists and collectors. For art lovers, the awards mean new cultural events that belt-tightening museums might otherwise be unable to mount.
The Prix Pictet, of which Kofi Annan is honorary president, has rapidly become one of the most important champions of art photography. Sponsored by the Geneva private bank Pictet et Cie, the prize not only offers the world's biggest cash purse for photography, but also exposes new audiences to works by some of the genre's finest artists. More than half a million people in Asia, North America, and Europe saw the 2008 water-inspired exhibit of finalists, including contemporary masters Robert Polidori and Susan Derges. Last year's earth-themed competition, which features pieces by Edward Burtynsky and Andreas Gursky, just opened in Greece, and is scheduled to travel all over the world.
The increasingly global nature of the art market has created a need for navigation tools. Lizzie Carey-Thomas, a curator of 2009's Turner Prize exhibit in London, believes the new awards are a "reaction to the popularization of contemporary art and the need to filter and draw attention to the very best." Sometimes they operate on a regional level; the Hong Kong–based Sovereign Art Foundation, backed by a financial-services company whose chairman is an art aficionado, started giving awards in Asia six years ago and in Europe in 2006. "We set out to recognize the best talents in a region, some of them midcareer artists, who might need an international lift," says Tiffany Pinkstone, director of the Sovereign Art Foundation, which increased its prize money from $10,000 to $25,000. Now Sovereign is looking into starting an award for new African art. "It is very exciting to be part of the emerging market scene," says Pinkstone.
Do prizes in themselves encourage more interesting art? Not necessarily. "Creators of difficult, profoundly challenging, or subversive art are not likely to win prizes," says Bartolucci. Horrified by what he sees as the Hollywoodesque new Annual Art Awards from the Guggenheim, Jens Hoffmann, director of the California College of Arts Wattis Institute, wrote in an editorial in The Art Newspaper: "We must recognize the shallowness of celebrity fixation and continue to promote a wider understanding of art as something much more than a status symbol for the rich and famous."
If only some of these new awards could do what the Turner did in Britain. Last month 49-year-old painter Richard Wright won the Turner Prize for his carefully crafted abstract gold-leaf frescoes. After years of awardees working in media as diverse as elephant manure, a sliced preserved cow, and a condom-strewn bed, honoring Wright feels like the beginning of a new era. Carey-Thomas, who administers the much-discussed award for British artists under 50, says this year's crop of finalists seemed to be exploring "modest encounters with the moment," and the public responded with serious consideration. Despite its reputation, the Turner's magic lies not in its propensity to shock audiences and enrich struggling artists, but in its power to incite broad public conversation about art and its relationship to the world. Every new prize ought to be as ambitious.