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Behind the scenes of the John Moores 25 exhibition

A talk by Lisa Bradshaw, the John Moores exhibition officer, held at the Walker Art Gallery, on 20 November 2008. Lisa talks about the history of the John Moores contemporary painting prize since it started in 1957 and the organisation of this year's John Moores 25 exhibition.

Lisa Bradshaw: Hello everyone, welcome to the Walker Art Gallery. My name's Lisa Bradshaw and I'm the John Moores exhibition officer here at the Walker Art Gallery. It's my role to manage the competition element of the John Moores and to also co-ordinate the exhibition. So I work solely on the John Moores exhibition throughout the whole of the year. That's everything from the call for entries, the judging periods, the installation and the research and evaluation at the end.

So just a brief note about the history of the John Moores exhibition. In 1957 the competition was initiated by Sir John Moores, who was also the founder of Littlewoods organisation. It was an open submission competition with prize money, totalling to the amount of £458,350, which has been awarded so far since it began in 1957. Sir John Moores wrote to the Walker Art Gallery to ask if he could stage the exhibition here and then he further wrote to the editor of the Sunday Times on 7th August to declare his intentions about what he'd like to do. On 10th November in 1957 the first John Moores exhibition was held here at the Walker Art Gallery. Inititally it wasn't only paint, sculpture was also allowed up until John Moores 4 and also there was a junior section, so the competition was divided, professional artists and junior artists also, but that ended in John Moores 6.

So the purpose of the exhibition. John Moores set out:

"To give Merseyside the chance to see an exhibition of painting and sculpture embracing the best and most vital work being done today throughout the country"

That was his initial aim that he set out when he wrote to the editor of the Sunday Times and also to the Walker Art Gallery, and furthermore;

"To encourage contemporary artists, particularly the young and progressive"

So, just a few key facts about the John Moores exhibition

  • Previous prizewinners Have included David Hockney, Peter Doig and Michael Raedecker to name a few. We currently have a previous prizewinners' display from 1957 to 2006 at the Walker Art Galery in room 12. If you haven't seen it as of yet I strongly recommend it. It has a selection, I think there are 13 in total, of previous prizewinners on display there. That's to commemorate that this is actually the 50th anniversary of John Moores, with John Moores 25, so we have this exhibition alongside as well.
  • Since 1999 the exhibition has been one of the four main strands of the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art.
  • Since 2002 there have been fewer prizes awarded but they are now of much higher value.
  • In 2004 the purchase prize was abandoned, so there was an added value to the prize. It was no longer a case of the WAlker Art Gallery acquiring the painting in return for the first prize. Not only did they receive the first prize money, which is now £25,000, but also the Walker Art Gallery began to purchase the painting for its collection. So essentially the artist was receiving a lot more money in return for the painting.
  • And 2008, as I mentioned before, sees John Moores 25 in its 50th year.

So today the conditions of entry, which have changed dramatically over the years;

  • The entrant must live or be professionally based within the UK. Professionally based - we're often asked what that means - the artist may be from another country but they may be on residency here in the UK for a period of time. As long as they are here working within the UK at the time of entering the competition they are perfectly eligible.
  • Also the work must be solely made up, well, not solely, but it must have the medium of paint on it. That's absolutely any form of paint - household emulsion, acrylic, watercolour, goache. It doesn't have to be solely paint so it could be a collage or a drawing and then there might be a tiniest scrape of paint in the corner, that would still be accepted because it has a form of paint on it. As long as paint is listed within the medium it's still accepted.
  • The work itself must be designed to hang on a wall.
  • It must project no more than half a metre from the wall and it can't be any larger than 3 metres by 3.75 when mounted on the wall. We do have some paintings which stand away from the wall, which is why we put the half a metre limit on there. When we ask artists to submit their images of the painting they are able to submit an optional second image which might show the painting or the piece of work from a different angle to show off the relief or the collage.
  • There must be one painting per artist only, and as I said they can submit two images if they feel that the second will enhance the viewing of the work.
  • The exhibited painting must be for sale. The reason that we say that is because the work is no longer a purchase prize, so there is that added value element for the artist.

So our jury consisted this year, John Moores 25, of five people. From left to right on the picture that I'm showing on the screen, we've got Dinos Chapman, Sacha Craddock, Paul Morrison, Graham Crowley and Jake Chapman. Jake and Dinos, I'm sure that you are aware, are classed as part of the Young British Artists. They are painters and conceptual artists. Sacha Craddock is an art critic and curator, and also chair of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries. Paul Morrison is a Liverpool born artist, he's a painter. He actually had the opening show at the Bluecoat Art Centre when it reopened in March, he was part of that exhibition. And Graham Crowley has been in the John Moores exhibition ten times, if he wasn't a juror this year he would have entered, he's won many prizes before.

Audience member: Jake and Dinos, are they brothers?

Lisa Bradshaw: They are, yes, they're brothers. There's an age gap of I think it's about four years but they are brothers.

Audience member: Is it always predominantly men or is that just this year?

Lisa Bradshaw: It's not always but for some reason it has worked out that way this year. There's never a set number of members that we have, it's not always a case that we have five. I think for John Moores we had three women and two men, so it changes every time.

The prize money on offer, we've got a first prize of £25,000 and four other prizes of £2,500, and then also the visitors' choice prize. This allows members of the public who see the exhibition to vote for their favourite painting. It's normally £1,000 but this year to coincide with Capital of Culture it's £2,008. The winner will actually be announced next week and voting has now ended, so keep an eye out for that one.

With regards to the call for entries, artists register in February of the exhibiting year, sorry they can register from November until February of the exhibiting year, so the next call for entries will be November 2009 and that will run until February 2010. Artists can ask for a call for entries pack which we send to them, it looks something like this [holds up a 'Call for entries' brochure], or they can be picked up from galleries or anywhere really, we distribute them quite widely. This lists all the terms and conditions of the competition and also on the back page has the registration form, if I can find which one it is, that one - the registration form [holds up a form]. This is what any artist who wants to enter the competition needs to complete and return to us with their registration fee.

Upon receiving that our team process all the registration forms and we send back a confirmation to say thank you for your registration and here is your entry number. Each artist is given their own unique entry number. We had a record number of entries for John Moores 25 registrations, 3,448 to be precise.That was actually our highest ever number since John Moores 4, which was 2,406, so it was quite a high number. Artists can then after registering, they enter their images. They can do this in one of two ways, they can either enter online, uploading their images and their painting details or they can do it using a form. John Moores 25 is the first time that we've had an online submission, it's something that we've never tried before but it actually worked quite well and I'd say 75 to 80% of our entrants submitted online. We still had the option of artists being able to submit using a 35mm colour slide but it seemed that the online way was much more favourable.

So once all the images are received the jury spend, it was three days this time, viewing every single image that is received. Some people don't think that they do view them all, I can assure you that they view every single image that comes through to us. It took three days, as I said, this time and all judging is anonymous. The only information that the jury can have access to, if they want to know, is the title of the painting, the medium that it was created in and also the size. The only other thing they can know is the date it was produced. We ask the artist to submit a painting that was preferably produced since the last John Moores exhibition, though this isn't always the case. It's just to make sure that we have a new and recent work, something that isn't submitted to the John Moores each time over and over.

Audience member: Did you say that the judges can know the title?

Lisa Bradshaw: They can, yes, they can.

Audience member: I thought that when they were viewing they weren't allowed to know what it's called?

Lisa Bradshaw: Oh no, they are, they're allowed to know the title of the painting. The only thing that they're not allowed to know is the artist's name, but they can know the title. They may guess the artist's name, which happens quite a lot, you know, it may be a case of "Oh that's such and such's painting, that's so their style", and a lot of the time they're actually wrong, but it's really interesting to listen to and obviously at this point there's a lot of debate about whether a painting should go through to stage two or not. Essentially what they're trying to do at this point is to narrow down the selection to bring in a shortlist of works to be viewed in the flesh. There are no yes's at this point, it's a case of maybe or no.

Audience member: Are they told how many they can choose? Is there a limited number?

Lisa Bradshaw: There isn't, no. In the past we have limited it to say, we've said no more than 500, but it always seems to be the case that they, it's always been about 200, 250 works. However this time for John Moores 25 it was extremely less, it was only 142. Considering we had the highest number of registrations ever, we didn't put a limit on it this time but they only chose 142. What happened is after all the maybes were chosen, the jury then viewed all of the maybes again and from those they selected the ones that they would really like to see in the flesh.

Now with regards to a selection criteria, there isn't one really. In the past its been the case that the jury amongst themselves have said OK, if three vote for this painting it goes through, or we all have to agree and it goes through. But this time the jury were really keen, they set their own rules as they always do with their own criteria, but this time they were quite keen that if one juror wanted the painting to go through and only one wanted it to go through then they should have the opportunity to really fight for that painting. So there was a lot more discussion within this process this time round and many of the paintings got though maybe because one juror felt so passionately about it that they were able to convince the others to see things that they may not have seen before.

Audience member: If somebody has signed their work does that mean it's disqualified?

Lisa Bradshaw: It doesn't at all. We try to cover it up as best as possible and we also ask in the conditions that artists don't sign their paintings. I'd say we only had two for John Moores 25 and luckily they were so extremely far in the corner that we were able to mask it in the slide so that it wouldn't distract from the painting too much at all.

There's also, as well as going through the maybes again, it's often the case that the jury say "There was one that we put in the no's, I can't stop thinking about it, can we see it again?" and that's not a problem, we have a team [pointing at slide] you can see back left on the photo that I have on the screen where there is a large unit that staff work behind to go through the images and as the jury make a decision about whether it's selected they mark it up.

So then we go through to stage two of the competition and at stage two all of the paintings are brought to Liverpool. This is held in July, stage one is held in May and now we're through to July with the exhibition the following September. We have six depots around the UK that artists can take their work to. These are Liverpool, they can bring it directly to our warehouse in Liverpool...

Audience member: Where is that?

Lisa Bradshaw: [Pointing at photo of paintings in a warehouse] That's our warehouse in Liverpool, it's the A Foundation's premises that we use. So, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Belfast, Glasgow and London. The artists take their work to one of those and we bring them all to Liverpool. There they are viewed over, it took two days this time, and at this point the exhibition is chosen.

It pretty much works almost like a conveyor belt system, it's the only way I can really describe it. The jury sits in front of a large viewing area, a large white wall, and we have a large team of handling technicians who stack the paintings within bays around the warehouse and they mix them up, so they bring them round in turn in front of the viewing area where they're seen. Now the picture that is at the top of the screen [pointing at presentation] where there are lots of paintings all at once, that's not how they're chosen, that's actually at a point where the jury are trying to choose the prizewinners. So they would view one painting at a time, decide if it's a yes, no or a maybe and it'll be popped to a side, maybe viewed again to make sure that they're happy with their decision.

Once they've chosen the exhibition, of which they chose 40 works this time, they also choose the prizewinners at this stage. So in the image I was talking about before [pointing at presentation] we have probably about ten paintings about the area that the judges were in and this is where the debate really kicks in. People have their favourites, they feel that works should be awarded prizes for different reasons and it's at this point that the first prizewinner and the four other prizewinners are chosen. Thios decision is then strictly embargoed until the announcements are made on the private view night, which was 18th September this year.

So John Moores 25 itself, the exhibition opened to the public on Saturday 20th September and whereas we normally end it with Liverpool Biennial, which is 30th November, we're actually continuing this time through Christmas to 4th January. Part of the reason is not only to have something in the galleries over Christmas but also because it's Capital of Culture year and it's the 50th year of John Moores, we wanted to extend the exhibition as long as possible.

So our first prizewinner you may have seen already, if not please do go and have a look, was Peter McDonald with 'Fontana' and then we had four further prizewinners who were:

  • Julian Brain with 'Special Relativity',
  • Geraint Evans, 'An Ornamental Hermit',
  • Grant Foster with 'Hero Worship' and
  • Neal Jones with 'Breugel Camp'.

All of the paintings are in the special exhibition area over in the Walker Art Gallery, mainly in galleries B and C. The labels that accompany the paintings do say on them if they are prizewinners or not.

The exhibition opening itself as I said took part a few days prior to it opening to the public. For the sake of the podcast - I'm currently being recorded for our website - there are a few photos on the screen, various shots of the opening event. It was packed, we had 458 people attend the private view, which is just under our maximum capacity. The evening consists of various speeches and thanks by members of the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition Trust, [pointing at presentation] here we have Lady Grantchester, who is Sir John Moores' daughter, saying thank you to various people and talking about what the John Moores painting prize means to her. Also we had Phil Redmond saying a few words and our director of art galleries, Reyahn King, and then Sacha Craddock made the announcements of the prizewinners [pointing at presentation]. Top right photo, we have prizewinner on the left Neal Jones, Stuart Pearson Wright who is also an exhibitor and just general shots of the galleries.

Prizewinners on the images that we have on the screen, top left we have Peter McDonald, first prizewinner, just finding out that he has won first prize, and then also Peter being photographed with his painting and there is a number of press. We hold a separate event for the press to interview the artists, to take photographs of the artists, what the John Moores means to them, so that was one of those situations. The image on the screen that is bottom left, on the far left we have Graham Crowley, one of the jurors, Neal Jones, who did 'Breugel Camp', Peter McDonald, 'Fontana', Grant Foster who did 'Hero Worship' and Julian Brain, 'Special Relativity'. Julian you may hear him being refered to as Brian Baker which is actually his real name. Julian Brain is a pseudonym that he works under due to the nature of his painting. I'm not sure if you've seen it in the exhibition guide or read it in the catalogue, it'll be a lot more evident why. Also Geraint Evans, who was also a prizewinner with 'An Ornamental Hermit'.

Just to let you know about some of the resources that we've got available, the exhibition guide, there's some here, do feel free to take one. They are also available in the gallery and are downloadable on the website. Withing the gallery we have something that we haven't done before, the jury have recorded their responses to particular paintings, the prizewinners and also some others that were their favourites, and they've talked about why they felt they should be in the exhibition, so do have a listen to those, which are also available on the website. And we've got the exhibition catalogue, it's priced £9.95, we also have an online web catalogue, as is online, a John Moores exhibition fact file. It's at the back of the catalogue and it's something that we haven't done before, with it being the 50th anniversary. It basically lists facts of every single exhibition, from changes in conditions of entry, how many people entered, who were the prizewinners, who were the jurors, it really makes for an interesting read to see how the exhibition has changed over the years, so do feel free to have a look at that also. As I mentioned, you can visit our website.

And that's the exhibition. If you haven't seen it already then I do strongly recommend that you do so. Does anybody have any questions?

Audience member: Two questions, one easy and one hard. What's the registration fee?

Lisa Bradshaw: The registration fee is £20, that's the one off payment that the artist pays.

Audience member: Thank you. The not so easy one, why is it that many local artists who are quite well known are sceptical about this exhibition? I just wondered.

Lisa Bradshaw: To be honest I'm not entirely sure why many local artists are sceptical. Within the exhibition it's often the case, there are 40 exhibitors out of just under 3,500 and we have a large proportion of people entering from London and sometimes you get an exhibition which is made up of a majority of artists who are from London. I think, I'm just thinking of prizewinners...

Audience member: That was probably the criticism, that it was transferring Tate London up here.

Lisa Bradshaw: Absolutely. Part of the reason the John Moores was set up in Liverpool in the first place was to bring contemporary arts to the North West and to show London that we can do this too and thankfully it took off and it has been a great success and we still continue to do so. But people from London do still enter the competition, of which there is a much higher proportion than people in the North, hence the exhibition and maybe some of the scepticism. Does that help to answer?

Audience member: There was an alternative set up wasn't there at one point? I remember your curator talking about it in the first talk. Some of the local artists, Adrian Henri being one, set up an alternative.

Lisa Bradshaw: I'm not too aware of that. It'd be interesting to find out more about that.

Audience member: That fascinated me and then I spoke to a local artist and he had the same sort of attitude and I thought that's not encouraging these great, really good artists from Liverpool to enter. So is there anything you could do to lessen that which would encourage more local artists, because why should there be more from London?

Lisa Bradshaw: I know, it's just that way that it has worked out.

Audience member: So what are you going to do to encourage more local talent?

Lisa Bradshaw: We market extensively in the North, much more so than London, we hardly market there at all. It seems that with some of the larger art schools in London such as the Royal College and places that host exhibitions like the summer exhibition, they parallel some of their competitions and their exhibitions to ours so there's more discussion about it there, whereas we market it more here. It's very heavily marketed in the North, whether it be in local newspaers, on radio, billboards, buses, trains, it's something that we are aware of and we are continuing to try and improve. It is actually currently being addressed because we're already actually planning for John Moores 26 - I know, it's ongoing - but it is something that we will be addressing.

Audience member: Are the art departments of local universities very supportive?

Lisa Bradshaw: They are. This exhibition in particular has been extremely popular with groups of students, more so than John Moores 24 and many of the previous years. Its been extremely popular with students and we advertise a lot with local universities and colleges and we have their support in continuing professional development. Some of the sessions that we do are called portfolio days, so students from local universities and colleges can bring in their work and their portfolios. We're currently working with Liverpool Community College to try and encourage students, improving their portfolio, where do they go after their studies, how to write an artist's statement, how to write a biography and we're drawing on aspects from the John Moores exhibition and working with people like Liverpool Community College to improve these events and the services that we offer.

Audience member: Excellent. Would that extend to universities outside of Liverpool?

Lisa Bradshaw: Absolutely, there's absolutely no reason why it shouldn't. It's only something this year that we've really got off the ground but we're definitely looking to expand it

Audience member: Is there information on that?

Lisa Bradshaw: I can certainly get you information, that's not a problem, I think there's some here actually on the events guide [holds up a leaflet].

Audience member: Thank you very much.

Lisa Bradshaw: You're very welcome. Does anybody else have any questions?

Audience member: Radio Merseyside could do with plugging it a bit more I think.

Lisa Bradshaw: I actually did an interview with BBC Radio Merseyside on their breakfast programme so I'm aware that they have marketed it for us and pushed it for local artists. Maybe something that we'd like to get involved in in the future is a phone in to get local artists involved, so that is a relationship that we're looking to build upon.

Audience member: Because we've been a bit weak really over the past 20 years, the local artists feel like they're being neglected.

Lisa Bradshaw: As I mentioned to the lady before it's definitely something that we are aware of and we're looking to improve. Especially when we're running alongside exhibitions like the Independents, which coincides with the international part of the Biennial, it's something that we'd like to become more involved with.

Audience member: I thought it was an excellent idea to have the audio comments but why are there no comments from the Chapman brothers?

Lisa Bradshaw: They were going to do some but at the time they were moving studios and unfortunately at the last minute they were unable to do it. They were keen and they had picked out four works that they wanted to talk about, two of whicH were the prizewinners Julian Brain and Grant Foster, but they'd just moved studios and with one of their exhibitions coinciding with the judging as well it was very hard to timetable so unfortunately it never went ahead. But I'm glad that you felt that the audios worked on the gallery because we've never done that before so we're definitely looking to improve that again for the future.

Well thank you all so much for being a lovely audience and if there's anything else, then please do let us know. Thank you.