Jan 20, 2009

Celeste Prize 09

This just arrived in my inbox:

Celeste Prize 09

A new international contemporary art prize in which artists decide who wins the prize money!

40,000 Euro prizes in 5 prize categories: Painting, Photography & Digital Graphics, Installation & Sculpture, Video & Animation, and Live Media.

Final exhibitions and awards ceremony in Berlin, Germany, end-September 2009 at the Alte AEG Fabrik, 5 Voltastrasse.

The 46 finalist artists are chosen by a panel of international art critics: Mark Gisbourne, Adrienne Goehler, and Victoria Lu, while Live Media artists are selected by Claudio Sinatti and a panel of consultants with specific experience in audiovisual performance.

Deadline for prize entries: 30 June 2009 (launched 23 December 2008)

Celeste Prize is organised by non-profit cultural associations in Italy and Germany: Associazione Culturale L'Albero Celeste and Celeste e.V. Both associations were founded by Steven Music, who has organised similar artist-led prizes in Germany, Italy and the UK since 2004.


The Berlin jurists express some excitement about the idea of artists voting for artists in this competition:

"It is a charming idea to as it were revivify the idea of a final outcome of 'artist(s) choosing artist(s)', and is reminiscent of the traditional idea of artistic body of 'Societies of Artists', such as that which formed the Salon d'Automne of Paris, in 1906."

This reminds me of a proposal I floated at a large corporation a few years back. Once a year the company gave review scores to each employee. The scoring was conducted in closed-door meetings between managers. I proposed an alternative approach - give employees a number of "votes" they can allocate using an online form to members of the their team, and base review scores on these votes.

Voting systems offer some advantages over the horse-trading and nepotism of closed-door meetings. Of course, democratic-seeming voting system are hard to operate fairly in practice. They also favor those who are popular and good at networking. Hard workers who spend their time working solo are unlikely to do well in such a system.

In a company-wide review process, I believe voting has a place. Communication skills and networking are valued assets in a company. But in art, popularity votes miss the point. They shift the focus from the art to the social abilities of the artist.

Perhaps online art voting could be conducted "blind", i.e. with the names of the artists withheld from the website. However, even then, artists with broad social networks would simply email their friends saying "vote for entry 57." There is no easy way to address this in a public vote.

A second limitation of web voting is that viewers cannot experience the actual artwork, only a small imitation of it reproduced on their screen. This favors images which have dramatic impact when reproduced at small size. Works that rely on more subtle affective qualities will do poorly in this context.

The Celeste Prize recognizes many of these issues. The web-based vote is used to include works in the Celeste exhibition, but the shortlist of finalists for the prize money is selected by a group of "expert" panelists. This selection falls back on the traditional closed-door meetings, with the associated challenges of nepotism and horse trading ("you can have this artist if I can have that artist"). Clearly, the jurors are more likely to pick people who they already know. With Celesete, though, there in an interesting twist. The panel selects 46 finalists, and then those finalists themselves select the final winners, in a vote held at the exhibition, after they have seen the artworks. This is a good compromise.

But there is a kicker. €50 per artist! That's how much you pay if you want to submit work. That's more than twice what competitions like the John Moores prize charge, and goes beyond any definition of an "administration charge."

Poof. Any lofty claims the jurors make about being "an accessible entry without barries" go up in smoke. The jurors say "Celeste has de-formalised things and extinguished many of the stultifying aspects of traditional art prize administration." If they really believe €50 is not stultifying, they have lost touch with artists. The jurors should not be so self-congratulatory about using this form of income redistribution amongst artists already strapped for cash.

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