A brief history of the Turner Prize

Posted on 6 Jul 2015 in Visual Art, Turner Prize


The Turner Prize is awarded to a British artist under 50 for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the preceding year. 

Every other year, the prize leaves Tate Britain and is presented at a venue outside London. For 2015, that venue will be Tramway in Glasgow, an international art-space renowned for commissioning, producing and presenting contemporary arts projects.

But how did it all b​egin?

From its inception in 1984 the Turner has sparked controversy and debate, starting before the first prize had even been announced with debate around its name! Many wondered why the prize was named after Turner at all. The justification for doing was that although he is now considered one of the great British artists, Turner too was seen as a controversial figure in his day, who arguably changed the landscape of British art, in much the same way his modern contemporaries, the shortlisted artists, strive to do.

The first ever winner was Malcolm Morely – and you can see a full list of winners and nominees here

Since then the Turner Prize has been one of the most significant (if not the most significant) events in the British art calendar, continuing to invite controversy and debate. Over the years the prize has evolved and developed along with the changing face of contemporary art in the UK.

Below is a brief history of the Turner Prize from its origin in 1984 through to the current day. 

Look out for the next post in the series, where we'll be providing a beginner's guide to the Turner Prize, including information about how the nominees are selected, what the nominees have to do, and how the winner is chosen.  

1984 – ​1990 

In the early years the Turner Prize was finding its feet. There was controversy over the anonymity of the event's sponsor and what the award was actually for; to acknowledge reputable talent or showcase new and upcoming work? 

In 1987 the event was expanded and the rules updated to state that the winner should be an artist who'd made an outstanding contribution to British art, recognising both past and present achievement. A new sponsor for the event (an American Investment company) was also announced, disbanding conspiracy theories surrounding the event's mystery funding. 

In 1988, the award underwent further changes, with the award being restricted to artists only (having previously been open anyone working in the arts). The shortlist process was also dropped to eliminate the "combative selection process" associated with the prize. With it went the shortlist exhibition. 

Although the shortlist had been unpopular, its demise was even more so, depriving the arts community the opportunity to compare works, and to try and guess the winner. So in 1989 the jury reformed a shortlist of sorts, commending 7 artists whom had produced significant works in the last 12 months before announcing the winner. 

After five years of finding its feet, however, a damaging blow was struck to the Turner Prize in 1990, when the bankruptcy of the event's sponsor resulted in the cancellation of the 1990 prize. 

Many feared that it would not return…

1991 – 199​6

…and yet here we are, 25 years later, about to host the event in Glasgow. So what happened?

The event returned with a bang in 1991, with double the prize money and a new sponsor, Channel 4, bringing the event further into the public eye. An age restriction was introduced that stated artists had to be under 50, and the shortlist exhibition with works from the four artists was reintroduced.

Visitor figures increased over the years, with 1993 being marked as a turning point by Tate as the voice of the public grew louder in its response to the work and challenged the view of the critics. Momentum continued to grow, reaching a new high in 1995 as Damien Hirst's Mother and Child, Divided drew record audiences and tabloid excitement.

1996 was considered, in comparison, to be a rather dull year. It was also one devoid of female nominees…

1997 – 2​001

After an all-male shortlist in 1996, 1997 brought it back for female artists with an all-woman shortlist. As always, the Turner Prize is not without its controversy and some argued that this was a move towards political correctness after criticism the previous year.

The Turner Prize perhaps reached its controversial peak in 1999 with Tracey Emin's My Bed stealing the show and dividing opinion on accessibility versus elitism in contemporary art, while others were concerned about the reputation such works were giving the UK abroad. Steve McQueen beat Emin to the prize that year, also sparking debate with the then challenging proposition of video as art. 

The 2000 shortlist was comparatively conservative that of the previous year, but of course, it wouldn't be the Turner Prize if there wasn't some debate. This time it was nationality that was brought into question, as, although all artists practising in the UK, only one of the nominees was born here.

This era in the history of the Turner Prize ended the same way as the last, with an all-male shortlist. But 2001 did see the introduction of the public nominations in the London Evening Standard, as Brian Sewell sought to challenge what he saw as the undemocratic selection process… 

2002 – 2​008

Sewell's idea caught on and in 2002 nomination forms were made widely available to the public. For the first time, members of the public were also invited to leave their comments on a public notice board at the event, giving the audience a louder voice than ever before.

The 20th anniversary of the Turner Prize heard from the audience once again, as they voted Anish Kapoor as their favourite winner of all time.

2004 saw political tensions around the war in Iraq manifested themselves in the gallery. Just five years after debate about the place of video in art, the 2004 line up also sparked debate with an all video exhibition, even from well know sculpture artists, once again drawing into question where the boundaries of visual art lie.

2009 – 20​11

In 2010,  the boundaries of expectation continued to be challenged as, for the first time, the Turner Prize was awarded to an artist working in sound, Susan Philipsz for her work Lowlands and Long Gone.

2011 was another important year for the Turner Prize as, for the first time, it travelled beyond the nation's capital and was hosted at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gateshead. This was the start of something new for Turner Prize as, from this point onward, every other year it would be held outside of London to bring the exhibition to a wider audience. Its first outing was a major success, with audiences queuing for the gallery, and a record attendance level of 150,000.

2012 – 201​4

After its year away, the Turner Prize returned to London in 2012 with a mix of art forms, including drawing, film and video, and, for the first time, performance art.

In 2013, ​the Turner Prize travelled outside of London once again, this time being hosted by Derry-Londonderry as part of their year as Capital of Culture. The exhibition took place in old army barracks. Despite the inherent controversy of both the event and its temporary location, the two came together to reveal “the richness of an established British art scene” with one critic suggesting that "all the obsolete controversies can now surely subside".

And just last year, Turner Prize turned 30. From controversial beginnings, and its resurrection from what was almost an early demise, the Turner Prize has been at the forefront of contemporary art in Britain for the last three decades. The exhibition has pushed the boundaries and challenged public and critic perception alike on the subject of what art is and what form it takes. 

The Future?

The Turner Prize is on the road again, coming to Glasgow this year as it crosses the border into Scotland for the first time.

Glasgow has a longstanding relationship with the prize. As Nicolas Serota, director at Tate, put it, "over the last 20 years, Glasgow and Scotland has gained national and international recognition as a centre of excellence in, and for, the visual arts and for many years artists who are from Scotland or who have trained at the Glasgow School of Art - one of the world's leading art schools - have been nominated for, or won, the award."

And dubbed as the friendly city, with the slogan People Make Glasgow you can be sure that the locals will continue in the tradition of public debate. With the shortlist being announced last month, there's no doubt that the locals will have a thing of two to say about the exhibition when it opens in October.

The Turner Prize will take place at Tramway, opening on 1 October and running until 17 January 2016, with free admission.

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