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Contemporary Art

Introducing the Sotheby’s Prize

Attendance is booming at museums. According to The Art Newspaper, last year some 55 million people visited the ten most popular museums in the world, a list headed by Paris’s Louvre, New York’s Met and London’s British Museum. And, increasingly, it is blockbuster exhibitions, especially those that focus on a single, famous artist, that are luring audiences and balancing budgets. The most visited show in New York last year was Picasso Sculpture at MoMA, for example, while in London art lovers came in droves to exhibitions devoted to familiar names: O’Keeffe, Goya, Hockney and Calder.

But despite the inarguable appeal of the single-artist retrospective, sometimes it is smaller, unexpected exhibitions that truly transform our understanding of art and have the most profound, long-lasting impact. Curators are brimming with ideas that might reveal a little-known chapter in art history or make us see familiar artists in a completely new way. The problems is that when funding favors blockbusters, finding support for other worthy exhibitions can become impossible.

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SOTHEBY'S PROVIDES MAJOR CORPORATE SUPPORT FOR THE MET BREUER. SHOWN HERE: INSTALLATION VIEW OF UNFINISHED: THOUGHTS LEFT VISIBLE. COURTESY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART © 2016.

Enter Sotheby’s. Today, the company launched the Sotheby’s Prize, an annual award of up to $250,000 that will allow a museum or curator to realize a groundbreaking exhibition – one that wouldn’t happen otherwise. “Sotheby’s is generally associated with the commercial aspects of the art world, but the truth is that we’ve always played a much wider and more central role in that world,” says Robin Woodhead, one of Sotheby’s most senior executives and a long-time supporter of the arts (he currently serves as Deputy Chairman on the Board of Governors of London’s South Bank Centre, home to the Hayward Gallery). Indeed, the company intersects with museums in many ways, including through its Preferred Programme, which gives top clients access to hundreds of museums around the world, and as an ever-willing partner for charitable events and fundraising auctions. Recently, the company launched the Sotheby’s Museum Network, an online portal that brings together video content from the world's leading museums.

“Most people don’t realize that Sotheby’s has a long tradition of directly supporting museums and exhibitions, especially ones that are innovative,” Woodhead points out. For example, in London, Sotheby’s is the sponsor of the Tate Britain Commission, while in New York it provides major support for the Whitney Biennial and the Met Breuer. The company is currently sponsoring a major contemporary art commission by Vera Lutter at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and even helped support the first Giacometti exhibition to go to China. It also underwrites major prizes in the UK and France for historic house preservation.

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THE SOTHEBY'S PRIZE JURY, LEFT TO RIGHT: CONNIE BUTLER, DONNA DE SALVO, OKWUI ENWEZOR, ALLAN SCHWARTZMAN AND NICHOLAS SEROTA.

What we want to see are exhibitions that really open up whole new areas for consideration.
Sir Nicholas Serota, former director of the Tate Museums

Woodhead saw the Sotheby’s Prize as an opportunity to do even more to foster innovation at museums. When presented with the idea, CEO Tad Smith quickly embraced it and committed the funds, while Allan Schwartzman, the distinguished curator, author and art advisor who recently joined Sotheby’s as Chairman of its Fine Arts Division, developed the mission and process for awarding it. Schwartzman homed in on the concept of helping finance hard-to-fund exhibitions that would be, in some way, groundbreaking, and tested the approach out on several key curators, museum directors and foundation leaders. The response was tremendous.

“We came to realize that the kinds of exhibitions that have generated some of the most important thinking – and rethinking – about art have been thematic exhibitions, ones that look outside the usual ideas of art history,” Schwartzman says. “And these exhibitions have been disappearing from museums in large part because they do not generate the same audiences and revenues as blockbuster monographic shows.”

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AMONG THE EXHIBITIONS THAT EMBODY THE IDEALS OF THE SOTHEBY'S PRIZE IS WACK! ART AND THE FEMINIST REVOLUTION, CONNIE BUTLER’S SEMINAL EXHIBITION AT THE GEFFEN CONTEMPORARY, MOCA, 2007. PHOTO BY BRIAN FORREST, COURTESY THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, LOS ANGELES.

Recognizing that great prizes rely on great juries, Schwartzman set about recruiting a world-class panel. The first to sign on was Sir Nicholas Serota, former director of the Tate Museums, who accepted the invitation immediately. With decades of experience in programming museums, Serota keenly understands the challenges that museums face. “We see a huge number of exhibitions devoted to single artists, but rather rarely see exhibitions that bring to light something that has been the subject of a real, deep, scholarly study by a curator over a number of years, or that isn’t necessarily something that the public already knows it wants to see,” says Serota. Envisioning the potential impact of the Sotheby’s Prize, he adds, “What we want to see are exhibitions that really open up whole new areas for consideration or perhaps bring together artists that haven’t been seen together before. This prize, I hope, will encourage museums to think in those terms.” 

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ANOTHER GROUND-BREAKING EXHIBITION IS BLACK MALE: REPRESENTATIONS OF MASCULINITY IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN ART,  ORGANIZED BY THELMA GOLDEN AT THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART IN 1994. THE SHOW SET MANY OF THE TERMS FOR CULTURAL DISCUSSIONS ABOUT RACE AND GENDER. PHOTOGRAPH BY GEOFFREY CLEMENTS.

With Serota on board, Schwartzman went on to compose a dream team jury that also includes Okwui Enwezor, the highly regarded curator and critic who served as Commissioner of the 2015 Venice Biennale and Artistic Director of Documenta in 2002, and is now Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich; Donna De Salvo, Deputy Director for International Initiatives and Senior Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and former curator at the Tate Modern and the Dia Art Foundation; and Connie Butler, the former Chief Curator of Drawings at MoMA and recently appointed Chief Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Now the jury, chaired by Schwartzman, will be nominating curators and institutions, inviting them to submit proposals for exhibitions that fulfill the criteria for the prize. (Curators will also be able to submit applications without being nominated; for more information, email prize@sothebys.com.) The jury will then meet late in the summer, with the goal of awarding the prize in early autumn.

Expectations are high. “We want the Sotheby’s Prize to make groundbreaking exhibitions possible,” concludes Schwartzman, “ones that will truly change people’s understanding of art.”
 

LEAD IMAGE: CERITH WYN EVANS'S INSTALLATION FOR THE 2017 TATE BRITAIN COMMISSION, WHICH IS SUPPORTED BY SOTHEBY'S. PHOTOGRAPH ©JAY FENWICK.

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