Potent brew

The ICA Beck’s Futures Award aims to celebrate the best in up and coming British art. Oliver Bennett questions the worth of this new scheme, and looks at the contenders

It is time for a prize fight in the art world. Just as the once-supreme Booker Prize for literature now competes for column inches with the burgeoning Whitbread gong, so the Turner Prize is no longer the sole player in the art prize market.

This month sees a new award which is a direct contradistinction to – it may even be in competition with – the Turner Prize. It’s called the ICA Beck’s Futures Award. It is no great surprise. The German beer has had a long association with the contemporary visual arts in the UK (people will always go to a private view if there’s a free bottle or two of beer on offer) and in a similar way to Absolut Vodka, Beck’s has sponsored the visual arts in a long-sighted branding initiative, courtesy of arts impresario Anthony Fawcett. As freelance curator Barry Barker says, “It’s a logical development for Beck’s.”

But what of the ICA? Many feel that the once-fabled institution on London’s Mall has lost its agenda-setting reputation, so the ICA Beck’s Futures prize should help it regain the central ground that it once held in contemporary British art. “It has lost a lot of ground in the visual arts,” says Barker, who was director of exhibitions in the 1970s. “It hasn’t faced up to its responsibilities for a long time and needs all the help it can get.” Another ex-ICA employee is similarly disenchanted. “It’s not a serious laboratory for ideas anymore,” she says. “This could be their way to claw back some of the kudos.”

There have even been rumours lately that the ICA will become an adjunct to the soon-to-be-enhanced South Bank complex, and specialise in new media and pop culture events. But it seems that the ICA is trying to eke back some of its earlier merit as a proving ground for the cutting edge. “It’s trying to keep hold of the history of the ICA,” says ICA curator Susan Copping. “Whereas the Turner Prize is looking at an established body of work… [Beck’s Futures] is giving recognition to new artists of promise. The Turner Prize has become a bit of a media circus, and this award is a way to nurture artists.”

It is also a way of highlighting work outside the new establishment of the Tate Gallery, a handful of high profile galleries that have been associated with the Turner Prize, and the pervasive vaults of Charles Saatchi. “It’s trying to cast the net a bit wider,” says Copping, “to open it up to the artists themselves.”

The prize has few criteria. There is no age limit, though all the artists selected seem to be young. There is no restriction on the media used. And while the artists have to be from the UK – as with the Turner Prize – there is no need for a body of work, or an “outstanding contribution”, to use the argot of the gong-givers.

Oddly, several of the nominees seem to come from (or work in) Scotland, which should interest conspiracy theorists. And certain artists speak of organisational mayhem. “It’s great that they’re chucking money in the pot,” says one such artist. “But I was shocked at the last minute way it was thrown together, and I’m still not sure what the identity of the prize is.”

Indeed, Copping says that at this stage, there is not another one planned, which makes this year’s prize sound like a trial run. But it should attract attention, and the judges are interesting, including last year’s Turner Prize runners-up the Wilson twins, Sune Nordgren of the new Baltic Centre in Gateshead, Kasper König of Frankfurt School of Art and Jarvis Cocker, a long-time trustee of the ICA. There is also a student film and video prize, which is being judged by Dave Stewart, Agnès b, and Douglas Gordon.

Equally, the Turner Prize was a slow starter. Although it began in 1984, it was not until the 1990s, when Channel 4 started sponsoring it, that it went ballistic, with newspapers reporting the odds from Ladbrokes: not necessarily the finest way to “promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary British Arts” as the brief says, but a great way to stimulate publicity. It is awarded to a British artist aged under 50 for an outstanding exhibition in the year up to the closing date. “The Turner Prize was instigated to get wider public interest, which it has done,” says Barker.

There are other prizes, too. The two-year-old Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award exists as a philanthropic principle to augment the meagre earnings of even quite high-profile artists. Then there is the six-year-old Jerwood Prize, “the largest in the country awarded to an individual artist” at £30 000. It has fairly open criteria, and the last prize was awarded to Prunella Clough, who is in her 80s.

There is a NatWest painting prize, and the Citibank Photographic Prize, essentially another art prize as it is given to artists working in photographic media. All are worthy ventures but none have dented the media supremacy of the Turner Prize. “Do we need another prize?” asks Barker, rhetorically. “It’s up to them to prove we do.”

Here follows the ten nominations for the ICA Beck’s Futures Prize, the winner will be announced on 18 April.

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The Beck’s Futures Awards, from 17 March-17 May at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1

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