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Transcript of The history of the John Moores prize by Ann Bukantas

Ann Bukantas: My name is Ann Bukantas and I’m curator of fine art here at the Walker. I just want to do a talk here today partly covering some of the history of the John Moores exhibitions but also giving some info about his particular display which is focusing on John Moores prize winning paintings and artists, most of which are from our collections. And I really want to use that to tell you a bit more about the sort of legacy of the John Moores exhibition whether that’s the works that have ended up in our collection or these fantastic catalogues that I get very nostalgic looking at. Just because I think people assume that the John Moores is just the exhibition but there is a lot more to it than that and it has had a lasting significance for the Walker Art Gallery. I’ve got some material that I’ll show you as well, hopefully so there’s something more tangible when I start talking about things like the John Moores archive which I’ve used quite extensively to put this display together.

The John Moores exhibitions and the John Moores, what we’re now calling the John Moores Contemporary Art prize, which was founded in 1957 by John Moores who later became Sir John Moores who was the founder of Liverpool’s Littlewoods company. And he was an amateur artist himself but he was particular passionate about painting and contemporary painting. When he created, had the idea for the exhibition and the prize, it was really quite revolutionary in its day. I think it was, I’m not going to stick my neck out and say it was the first prize but it was certainly one of the early mainly art prizes. We tend to take art prizes like the Turner Prize for granted nowadays but the John Moores was up there at the outset and inspired a lot of those later prizes. And John Moores really had, I think, quite a revolutionary decision that was also about taking the focus away from London, and making a point that the north could do contemporary art very well and that a gallery like the Walker, that was very much about putting culture at the heart of the community, ought to have something that was closely associated with the gallery. And that really did underpin his decision to found the prize. And just to quote August 1957 at the point at which he launched the John Moores prize, he wrote a letter to the Sunday Times and he said:
“Living in the provinces as I do I’m one of those deeply concerned with the plight of provincial museums and art galleries, and I’ve often thought that that decline has something to do with the concentration of art shows, art criticism and the like in London.”

And he went on to say that he gallery will be serving the very purpose for which it was designed, and act as a focus for culture life on Merseyside, so he felt really passionately committed to that. I’ve already mentioned that it was pioneering; I think what I really want you to take away from this is to think about the impact in 1957 that a prize that championed contemporary painting must have had. We’re more familiar perhaps with controversies over conceptual art, you know whether pickled sharks in tanks or artists making unmade beds. The point at which the John Moores prize was created, and particularly into the 1960s what made it so central to the amount of press commentary it got at the time and the number of heated letters that were sent to the local papers was because it coincided with the period in which abstract art really started to come to the fore, and that caused such a shock. All the stories about ‘is it art?’, ‘this isn’t art’, ‘why doesn’t it look like a real landscape or a real dog or a real person?’ The walls of the Walker Art Gallery through the John Moores exhibition were filled with the most controversial abstract art in its day, and people were horrified. The art critics loved it – there was a lot of debate round it – but it shocked people and I think it’s easy for us 50 years on, to forget the impact that it must have had in its day. It’s now become almost a tradition the John Moores, it’s 50 years on, it’s been happening every 2 years since then but it was a real shocker in its day.

Since then, I mentioned the Turner prize earlier, but just to look at the dates of some of the art prizes people are more familiar with now, again to emphasis how early and how revolutionary the John Moores was. The Turner Prize wasn’t launched until 1984. The BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, that didn’t appear until 1990. The Jerwood Prize, which is something that a lot of John Moores artists also have exhibited in, that didn’t appear until 1994, and then there are other prizes throughout the 90s and at the turn of this century. So they’re all really bundled up together since the 1980s. And the John Moores 1957 again it’s a really important thing to recognise.

The competition itself and, if you’ve seen any of the info in the John Moores exhibition or if you’ve read any of the information in here prior to today, it’s an open submission exhibition. That’s what gives it its competitive edge. The artists that enter their work don’t know if they’re going to be selected. Nobody knows until the end of the process who’s going to win so there’s always a lot of buzz around it in that respect. The artists have to be based or working in the UK, so they don’t have to be British artists but they have to be based or working here. This year 2008, we had a record number of entries – over 3300 entries. Since the start of the exhibition it’s always attracted quite large numbers – there’s usually been over 1000 entries and frequently that’s been over 2000 so it’s been consistently something that’s attracted large numbers of artists. And importantly, and I’ll talk more about this later, the exhibition is selected by a jury, and that jury because it is different every time, by that very nature means that each exhibition takes on a different complexion if you like, depending on the dynamics of the jury, depending on their interests, depending on their particular field of expertise. And the jury’s made up of people like artists, curators, art critics, writers and so on.

Currently the John Moores first prize is £25,000. In 1957 it was £1,000 – that was a lot of money at the time. The other thing that makes winning the JOHN MOORES Prize very desirable, and is something that all the artists in this room have enjoyed, is that the winning painting often has come into the Walker Art Gallery collection. I say often because not everyone has and I’ll say a bit more about that in a while. When I was compiling the fact file, of which there are some copies in this room if you’re interested but it’s also at the back of the current John Moores catalogue, I totalled up that since 1957 the amount of money awarded in prizes for the John Moores has been 463,000 which is really quite phenomenal. And in that respect the John Moores has always offered one of the consistently highest levels of prize in any of the art competitions, and I think that’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked – it’s particularly important to the artists that win it. Current prize fund, so that’s the first prize and the other prizes, is just over £37,000. Artists have used the prize money for a variety of different reasons and another of the interesting facts behind this show was to try to look at where some of the artists have come since winning the John Moores, and what that prize money actually meant to them at the point they won. Some of them have used it to pay off their mortgage or buy a house. Some of them have – I think Alexis Harding who was the winner two John Moore’s ago, he paid off his bank loan with it. Other artists have used it to buy better quality materials because until they won the money they were painting on hardboard because they couldn’t afford canvas. And for some artists it’s also meant that rather than being in a position where they could only afford to paint commissioned word, if they had a particular client, it’s meant that they can actually take a holiday from commissions and produce the work that they want to do the work that they’re creatively driven to do.

Artists have also cited the recognition that being selected by the professional jurors which has included people like Sir Peter Blake, the critic Clement Greenberg and so on, that being selected by people who are so expert in their field, so well respected gives them a level of credibility that enables them professional to move up to the next rung. And it’s like a big professional pat on the back for them and that’s to them as practitioners is really quite important and is something that we as curators or visitors might not fully appreciate because we’re not in their position.

The other thing is the John Moores, because it’s a popular and known exhibition, we do get a lot of other curators, art collectors and art dealers visiting and if that means and artist sells their work or if they get offered an exhibition because their work has been brought to attention through John Moores, then that’s another way the whole process is really important to them. An artist like Peter Doig – the tall canvas over in the corner, it’s not actually the prize winning Peter Doig it’s a substitute painting but I’ll hopefully mention that later - but Peter Doig said that his career just went completely spiralling up to great heights after winning the John Moores and that was partly because of the critical attention that being in the exhibition brought upon his work.

For the Walker Art Gallery there’s another really important dimension to the John Moores which is reflected in all the works in this room, and that’s the fact that through the John Moores we have consistently acquired major paintings from the exhibitions for our permanent collection. And what you see here is completely the tip of the ice berg. Since, if our sums are correct, since the exhibition started we’ve acquired 71 artworks through John Moores and 19 of those have been first prize winners, and it’s from the 19 that this selection has been taken.

Linked to this whole process to putting this display together and to the John Moores exhibitions, I mentioned earlier that there are other elements to it that might not be immediately obvious as well as the acquisitions. The catalogues, which are part of the archive of the exhibition, are actually really quite critical because they act as documents of those particular shows. They’re actually lasting records of who was in the exhibition. There are lists of artists, in many of them there are selections of photographs of some of the works, and as the catalogues evolved they start to have critical essays in them as well, and critical commentaries on the exhibitions themselves. And they are really invaluable in terms of what they say, not only about the exhibitions but about painting from that particular period, that particular year. We have a more extensive archive related to the John Moores which is here at the Walker Art Gallery, and probably the best way of describing it is every bit of paperwork generated by the organisation of the John Moores exhibitions; so correspondence with artists, entry forms, press cuttings, I’ve already mentioned the catalogues. And they form a huge repository of information that I think is probably a future much bigger project for somebody. And in addition to the John Moores Exhibition Trust with whom we now work, they also have a separate archive and our long term plan is to document and compare the contents of those two archives because they’ll tell the story of this better than anything else can.

It was to that material that I turned for example, in researching some of the stories and some of the headlines that you can see displayed with the artworks in here. And also to create the fact file that I’ve mentioned. The fact file, which gives an overview of key facts to do with the John Moores exhibition, is really quite critical because it records things like the juries in particular years, who all the prize winners were, how much they won. But also what it does highlight is the fact that every year there were some degree of change to the rules surrounding the exhibition, and particularly in the early years those rules, and certainly when we look back at them now, were quite dramatic because the John Moores exhibition is always associated with painting but when it was first created in those early years there was a sculpture section for example, and when I opened that catalogue and glimpsed one of the first pieces of sculpture and it’s easy to forget that it had an much wider presentation of art than now where it is very, very tightly focused on painting. I’ve already mentioned that the fact file lists the different jurors. It also picks up on perhaps key years that are reflected in this display, and in some instances is the reason for a particular work being here. If you look at the Michael Tyzack painting which sit his wavy red, blue and green abstract painting the year that that was chosen, 1965, the jury was chaired by Clement Greenberg who I mentioned earlier – the American art critic who was a real champion of American abstract art, of colour field painting, of artists like Rothko and so on. And when he came to chair the jury, he was also the first foreign chair of the John Moores, people just knew that that type of painting was going to come to the fore, compared with this which is Jack Smith’s painting which won the first ever John Moores, which is much more representational and is part of what was known as the kitchen sink school of painting. So a dramatic shift was really signalled and probably and largely because of the presence of that one hugely influential art critic on the jury. So that serves to underline how the content of the jury can affect the content of the exhibition.

The prizes themselves have changed in nature over the years, and in part they’ve also been reflected in the way the different categories that, particularly in the early years, formed the exhibition have come into being and then been postponed for one year and then come back another year. So I mentioned that in the early years sculpture was a category. Up until 1965 what’s probably the equivalent of what we have now was known as the open painting section, but they as well as sculpture in some years they also had categories for French artists. They also had a category for junior artists, but junior isn’t perhaps what you would thing as it was up to the age of 36 years, which I think is quiet hilarious actually, then that was dropped to 25 years of age in 1963. It was actually the junior section that the artists Peter Blake won in 1961 with his very famous self portrait with badges which unfortunately isn’t in our collection.

Although sculpture was included in the early years, from 1969 they decided that that was it - no more sculpture - and there was a big controversy at the time in the press because they thought that it was a deliberate attack on particular types of sculpture such as kinetic art – the gallery and organisers had set out to exclude kinetic artists for some particular secretive reason. And the reality was that it seems they had merely decided that they were going to put the focus more onto painting. And as part of that abolition of the sculpture category they introduced a new rule, which we still follow in part today, which was that the work of art must not project more than six inches from the wall. In the press great analysis was done of this six inches figure – why was it six inches? Who was that to deliberately exclude? And the director of the gallery at time was quoted as saying that nobody can say that figure has any spiritual significance and that six inches was purely arbitrary. I guess it does leave the question of how on earth did the come up with six inches – perhaps they pulled it out of a hat. But the interesting thing was that the very year that they got rid of sculpture was the year that Mary Martin, who is the maker of the 3d piece in the box frame at the very end of this wall, that was the year that she was awarded joint first prize, and it’s quite intriguing that such a sculptural work should win in the year that they actually brought down the barrier on future sculpture. Mary Martin incidentally also became the first female prize winner, albeit a joint first prize, and it wasn’t until Lisa Milroy won some considerable years later that she actually became the first female full first prize winner.

A lot of the works here are what’s known as purchase prizes, and again that’s something that’s quite significant because it does inform what we’ve got. So that in a lot of the early competitions the first prize was a purchase prize, and what that actually means is that as well as winning the money the artist had to give their work of art to the organisers – in the case the organiser was John Moores and then John Moores gifted it to the Walker Art Gallery. He didn’t always do that and I don’t know all the reasons why that didn’t always happen, but what it meant was that, let’s say an artists entered a work that had a monetary value of £5,000 but in winning the first prize they won £1,000, they would actually in theory get less than the monetary value of the work. So in 2004 what we, the current organisers did was we abandoned that purchase prize altogether, and what we have said is that as well as winning the first prize the gallery will buy that first prize winning painting for the appropriate sum of money, so the artist will not only get the prize money they will also get the market value of the painting, so it’s added value if you like – it doesn’t undermine, it certainly adds to.

As well as the purchase prizes we have acquired a large number of other works from the exhibitions. As a result of that our painting collection does present and overview of key changes in contemporary painting in this country since 1957. Other galleries have also bought work from the John Moores. In 1972 the exhibition was won by the artist Euan Uglow with a beautiful, very realistic full length figure study. I do not know the reasons behind what the Walker Art Gallery did not acquire that work. It was acquired by the University of Liverpool art collection – it’s great that it’s in the city still but I do think it’s a real shame for our collection because it represents a particular style of painting that we simply don’t have here and I think it is a major work by the artist. The other thing that really characterises the early years of the John Moores that might come as a surprise to some of you is that as well as the competitive element, where people could submit work, the gallery also used to invite what they regarded as distinguished artists to exhibit their work as well and some of those works that were submitted were also included within the competitions. And amongst the artists that were invited were what are now really household names some of their – people like Oscar Kokoschka, Lowrie, Francis Bacon, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were invited in the early days when there was sculpture, Sidney Nolan who we have got work by in our collection. People like Ivan Hitchings, Richard Hamilton – really big names. Some of them people who previously won John Moores but some of them that were almost regarded above the competition if you like. And I think that is something we’ve had discussion about, whether or not we should bring something like that back into the John Moores because it does give it a completely different dimension.

The other thing that has come out of, perhaps having receded into the mists of time but has come out as part of the research around his particular prize winners display, has been some of the more colourful stories, let’s say, to do with the history of the John Moores. And there’s always great excitement if the John Moores somehow has a controversy or a special angle attached to it, and when Roger Hilton won with this painting in 1963 there was what was regarded at the time as the absolute bees knees of press stories for two different reasons. The first of them was that having won Roger Hilton was photographed sort of kicking at his painting and saying, he didn’t actually kick the painting but as in the act of kicking, and he was actually quoted as saying: “they’re terrible pictures, no wonder mine won”. And I think there might well be a photograph of him in the case of photographs over there actually doing that. There’s certainly a lot of press coverage around it, which was interpreted differently depending on which paper you read. Some suggested maybe he was pretending to kick the ball-like form at the far side of the painting. Other people thought he was dismissing the competition, his own prize work, insulting the other exhibitors in the show. It was all over the press, and then to add insult to injury at the exhibition opening – and this is quite well documented in a relatively recent book about the artist – he had rather a lot to drink, became quite drunk and argumentative. He insulted a waitress who was serving food to the people at the prize winning dinner, and also he teased a gentleman called Alderman John Braddock about his hair. I won’t go into the detail of what he said, but Alderman Braddock was very, very upset by this and unfortunately died later in the evening. You can imagine the headlines, I think the most subtle of which was ‘Artist’s behaviour kills Alderman’. And Roger Hilton actually had to go into hiding as a result of this. The press went absolutely ballistic and it is said that it subsequently affected Hilton’s career. Despite having won the John Moores with what one of the jury at the time actually said was one of the best paintings ever painted in the 20th century at that time. It sort of undermined all that in a way, and although Roger Hilton is really, really highly regarded it sort of tainted what aught to have happened as a logical progression following him winning such a major prize with what was regarded as a highly important painting. That same year, and this was really the year that the John Moores hit all the headlines, a group of locally based artists including Adrian Henry and Arthur Ballard (Adrian Henry in particular had entered a lot of works into the John Moores over a number of years and never been selected), they organised a sort of Salon de Refusés exhibition in Liverpool. It had its own preview and it was opened by a beautiful smiling lady called Miss Refusés or Miss Refuse depending on which newspaper you read. And the reason they did that was partly I think to express their outrage, but also to make the point that there were good paintings that were submitted for the John Moores but that didn’t get into the final competition. And that attracted a lot of press coverage and reviews in its own right – almost competition for the John Moores if you like.

There were also a number of firsts linked to the John Moores including in 1965 the John Moores exhibition had the first ever sound guide – it actually had an audio guide with individual tape machines which every visitor could go round and listen to an audio commentary on the exhibition, which had an introduction by John Moores himself. That’s something I think one day we will return to and we have got some audio guides in the current show, but it’s interesting to think they’ve been doing it since 1965 which again is quite radical.

I think short of just pottering round lastly, and maybe just pointing out one or two other works and specific reasons for having put them in, I want to start winding up now by coming back to the catalogues and some of the future things that I think we want to do with this huge pot of information – all theses stories – the future potential of it for the gallery and a wider interested audience. What we’ve got here is, with the exception of the current catalogue, every single year’s catalogues of the John Moores exhibition. There’s one exception which is the 2002. Really quite controversially a decision was taken to not produce a published catalogue but instead to have an online catalogue and a more reduced brochure which is what you see there. Now, although the online catalogue was phenomenally popular, and still is and we’ve built on that, it seems a shame that there isn’t this one. People like books, people like printed documents and I think when you do see this mini potted history of the exhibition laid out you do realise the significance of these publications in terms of being a document of the exhibition. Since 2002 we’ve fortunately done both – we’ve produced a printed catalogue and we have put an online version so it’s much more internationally accessible. Currently we’re working on making sure that the content of these earlier catalogues, which are no longer available because they have long since sold out some of them, we’re having them transcribed and we’re putting them all online because we do get a lot of queries from students, from art dealers, from other curators sometimes from the artists themselves, about who was in a particular show, can we confirm whether a particular painting was included in a particular exhibition - any number of reasons. It’s for that reason amongst many that this documentation is really, really important and we’re doing what we can to make it available to a much wider audience.

I’ve said that we’ve got large archives and the John Moores Trust also has its won archive. I think that in the future there is this project has really only dealt with the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more in depth research and analysis into the significance of the exhibition, but also the impact that the John Moores and the picture it’s presented of British art at those particular points in time, the impact that that has had on the British arts scene as a whole. And I think there’s a project there for somebody to do, to delve into that, to analyse what was exhibited, to look at how the inclusion in the exhibition has impacted on the careers of those artists and so on. I think that is something that will happen over the next few years, and we’ll carry on doing what we can to work towards that point. I think it’s probably a major book and a major exhibition waiting to happen really.

I just want to end by perhaps pointing out one or two works in here. I think to make the point that some of the works that have come into our collection through the John Moores have taken on different levels of significance to not only the gallery but also to our visitors and the artists. And in some instances that’s why they’ve been included in the exhibition. It probably goes without saying that the David Hockney painting, ‘Peter Getting Out Of Nick’s Pool’, has gone on to not only become one of Hockney’s best known works but really to become one of the bench marks of our modern painting collection. It’s become iconic – that’s the word we use. People come here to see that painting. It’s associated with the gallery and it might not have been thought that that would have happened all those years ago, and similarly one of the paintings that we haven’t got in this exhibition, which would have hung in place of that Trinidad waterfall scene by Peter Doig over there, is Peter Doig’s painting, Blotter which is actually on the front of this John Moores catalogue which has subsequently become regarded as one of Peter Doig’s masterpieces. Peter Doig hit the headlines some years ago for having one of his works sold at auction for over £5 million – think at the time it was the most expensive contemporary painting ever sold. Not necessarily that money is the mark of an artist’s success but it emphasises how big Peter Doig has gone on to become since he won the John Moores. As it happened, his painting was in a major exhibition of his work which is in Germany at the moment, and we were asked by Peter if they could have it for the exhibition and we wanted it for this exhibition, so very generously what he agreed to do was to lend us a painting that he did about four years ago which has enabled us to hopefully make the point that this artist is still around, that he’s still producing great work. We did feel it was critical that Doig was in this display, so it’s been a nice twist to be able to show what I think is a really beautiful painting.

Next to that is I guess what I would like to describe as perhaps the people’s John Moores painting, Dan Hayes’ composition which affectionately known as the hamster cage. That has probably become one of the most popular paintings in our collection, particularly with a younger audience just because it is on a really simple level. It’s a fantastic painting of a giant hamster cage and you can imagine your 5 year old stood looking up at that – something that fills you with wonder and you want to come back and visit. It’s a painting that if we take it off display you can predict that my colleagues who work on our information desk will be asked where it is and when it’s coming back. So there’s that nice friendly side to the John Moores in terms of works that have been acquired through a major art competition but which have found their way into the psyche of our visitors.

I think on that note I’ll end. If anyone’s got any questions on aspects perhaps I haven’t touched on I’m more than happy to answer them if I can. If not it’s been very nice to have you here and hopefully if you haven’t yet had a proper look at the display and had a look at some of the wonderful historical photographs of the exhibition in the display case over there I hope you will take the chance to do that.

Member of the audience: Can I just ask? You said at the beginning that this prize was set up to encourage art in the provinces, but in recent years most of the judges have been London-based. What proportion of the art that actually makes it into the competition is London-based?

Ann Bukantas: Erm, probably quite a high proportion, either London-based or artists that have trained in the major London colleges like Goldsmiths, St Martin’s and so on. I think it’s important to emphasise that the whole John Moores entry and selection process is anonymous and there’s no way of controlling or assessing or predicting how many local artists, and when I say local I mean artists that were either born or trained in Liverpool or taught in Liverpool, how many of them are going to get through. As it happens this year I think there are about three or four artists who either originally came from Liverpool or who have got a significant connection with the city through perhaps having studied here. And I would say that from my recent experience of the John Moores there’s probably been in all the shows in I’ve known since I’ve been here in 2002, there have been perhaps three or four artists with a significant Liverpool connection. I don’t know if there’s ever been a year when there’s literally none but I know it’s an artist’s hot potato in a way because owing to the nature of the selection process there is not a way of being proactively representative in that sense, and certainly I gave an example of the Adrian Henry’s Salon de Refusés exhibition. There were active ways of redressing that situation going on at the time then, and certainly every year we see and expect to see letters, as we’ve had again this year in the local press, questioning why there are either none or so few Liverpool artists in. But, as I say, it is important to make the point that there isn’t a way of controlling that because until the works have been selected and we start to publish the catalogue the jury have got no access to information on the origins of the artists, where they’ve studied – it’s all completely anonymous.

Member of the audience: [Question indistinct]

Ann Bukantas: Yes, Liverpool University’s art collection. The university’s art collection is now based at the Victoria gallery - the new beautiful gallery. Last time I was there it wasn’t on display. It’s – what’s the name of the painting? That’s a good question. I can tell you exactly what the name of the painting is. It’s this on here [points to a text panel] – this nude. Whether or not they’ve got it on display anywhere else on the university estate I don’t know but they may have got it out.

Ok, thank you for coming, thank you for listening.