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How Berlin's Anarchic Art Prize Bucks Big Donors

The Berlin Art Prize is a homegrown honor that puts artists, not corporate interests, first.

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

The 2015 Berlin Art Prize trophy designed by Yael Bartana. Photo courtesy Berlin Art Prize

It’s a frequent criticism of the art world that while art itself is often subversive, the institutional confines within which art is created, funded, and displayed are anything but. To counteract the outsized influence that monied donors and corporations have on the industry, German artists founded The Berlin Art Prize as an alternative system of recognition, questioning the traditional jury process and supporting emerging voices.

Now in its fourth year, The Berlin Art Prize was founded out of a frustration at always seeing the same names judged as critically worthy of recognition. The 2016 jury—Karen Archey, Kito Nedo, Emeka Ogboh, Ahmet Öğüt, and Susanne Winterling—selected nine artists as this year’s nominees, and from November 12 to December 10, they’ll participate in a group exhibition of work based on the theme "HARD WORK, WORK HARD" at Kühlhaus Berlin, a converted industrial gallery space. Three of the artists will be selected as the winners of this year’s prize on December 10.

Berlin Art Prize 2015. Photo courtesy of Berlin Art Prize

Interest in the prize has grown astronomically since it was established, and Berliners feel grateful for the additional opportunities for recognition. “There are so many good artists in Berlin, successful or still struggling, and they all feel the need to have a common platform to show their works under different institutional and personal conditions,” Sophie Jung, a co-founder of The Berlin Art Prize, tells The Creators Project.

“One aspect of the prize’s ‘foundation myth’ was to [upend] the system of hierarchy, judgement, critical acclaim, and appreciation that comes from the act of awarding a prize. We come from a position of zero power as prize founders. We are peers, not prestigious benefactors,” co-founder Zoe Claire Miller says. The nomination process is blind, since jury members are also peers of the artists whose work they’re judging.

Berlin Art Prize logo. Courtesy Berlin Art Prize

In addition to anonymizing the process, The Berlin Art Prize eschews corporate funding to eliminate conflicts of interest. “I haven’t been in the position, but I would like to think I would not accept accolades from an international corporation that is responsible for ecocide or food speculation, like Vattenfall or Deutsche Bank, and with that be complicit in them congratulating themselves on supporting culture, which is only left to corporations because neoliberal policy has resulted in the state not funding culture,” Miller says.

Despite cynicism towards the art world, the founders of the prize recognize that Berlin is an exceptional haven for artists. “I love that in Berlin, you can have this kind of project, something supported through the efforts of a team simply because they like the concept,” co-founder Alicia Reuter says. “In other cities—London, New York, Paris—artists tend to have a day job [to make money] and an evening artistic practice before they ‘make it.’ Despite our jobs and creative pursuits, we still have time for this kind of community-building passion project. It’s a luxury!”

Berlin Art Prize opening 2014. Photo courtesy Berlin Art Prize

The 2016 Nominees for The Berlin Art Prize are Martin John Callanan, Regina de Miguel, Stine Marie Jacobsen, Lindsay Lawson, Lotte Meret, Benedikt Partenheimer, Aurora Sander, Raul Walch, and Lauryn Youden. An exhibition of their work is on view from Nov. 12 - Dec. 10 at Kühlhaus Berlin.

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