The People’s Art

The photographer who wins the prestigious Grange Prize is chosen online by the public. Is this a gimmick, or the future of art in the digital age?

Illustration by Ben Clarkson

In the nineteenth century, Europe’s premier art contest was the six-week, state-run Paris Salon, an exhibition with such high stakes that the painter Paul Cézanne called it a “battlefield on which an artist can reveal himself at one stroke.” A place to win prizes, fame, and commissions, the salon was critical to an artist’s career, because with as many as 50,000 visitors in a single weekend it was unmatched in its ability to influence public tastes in art.

Then, in 1863, everything changed. Napoleon III, best known as Louis-Napoleon, the emperor and absolute ruler of France, placed a notice in the newspaper Le Moniteur Universel declaring that it was time for “the public to be the judge” of art. He made his pronouncement after the salon rejected a whopping 70 percent of applicants to the show. In support of artists who demanded the right to exhibit, the emperor announced that in addition to the salon there would be a Salon des Refusés (“salon of the rejected”), which would showcase work declined by the state’s judges.

Louis-Napoleon had political motives; his decision coincided with France’s first election in eight years and a public debate over state violations of personal liberties. But his declaration changed the course of art history. The Salon des Refusés included such groundbreaking paintings as Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) by Édouard Manet, and Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl by James McNeill Whistler, works executed outside of the prevailing standards of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, where aesthetic rules were established.

While the Salon des Refusés did not have an immediate impact (in 1863, the press mocked the show as “appalling,” “ludicrous,” and “ridiculous”), within decades its significance proved profound. Once the public was invited to give an opinion on art, the academy’s exclusive influence cracked. Before long, the Impressionists, the Fauvists, and the Cubists set new definitions for creativity and ushered in a cultural revolution.

Fast-forward a century and a half. It is a hot September evening, and the Art Gallery of Ontario is hosting a launch party for the 2012 Grange Prize for photography, the world’s first institutionally organized visual arts prize whose winner is selected online by a public vote. Once again, the stakes are high. The award, named after the Georgian manor that originally housed the AGO’s collection, recognizes the best in Canadian and international contemporary photography. The winner, chosen from four nominees, will receive $50,000 and a six-week paid residency in a foreign country, and will become the focus of 60,000 online art watchers around the world.

“There’s no doubt that the prize matters,” says Toronto dealer Stephen Bulger. Sarah Anne Johnson, one of the photographers he represents, won it in 2008, setting her career on a new trajectory. The increased interest in her work was immediate and dramatic, causing the Bulger Gallery’s website to crash and Johnson’s sales to rise. Knowing that an artist has won or been nominated for the Grange “can give collectors the confidence to proceed with a purchase,” Bulger says. It can propel a photographer from an obscure name to a well-regarded figure in the art world. But it is also controversial. Since its inception in 2007, it has taken the question of what makes art good out of expert hands. “We are harshly criticized for giving up the gallery’s obligation and commitment to make critical judgments,” says AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum.

“I am very pro-democratic,” says Governor General Award winner Lynne Cohen, who was nominated for the Grange Prize in 2009, “but people have to have passion about art and not just a knee-jerk reaction. Art is complicated, and to understand what artists are doing requires considerable study, time, and attention—in a way that anything worth doing requires considerable attention. Maybe that’s naive, but that’s what I would like to think.”

Another source of derision about the Grange is its methodology. The AGO says it has put measures in place to ensure that no one can cast more than one ballot, but “if you’re going for the popular vote,” says Ann Thomas, curator of photography at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, “anything could happen, especially on the Internet. You could rig the process by paying a village a whole lot of money to vote for one photographer.”

Others warn that the prize could favour artists whose works are conceptually straightforward and pleasing—art that people like, even if it’s not the best. “The prize is great because it exposes people to a wide definition of what photography is today,” says Jessica Bradley, one of the country’s premier contemporary art dealers. “But unless the jury has done a good job of presenting an evenness in quality, it’s potentially flawed.” In other words, an artist who takes pictures of sunsets or animals could have a better chance of winning than one who presents an aesthetically off-putting, obtuse, or even ugly subject.

These issues seem not to trouble the 600-plus guests, most invited via Facebook, who have turned out for the Grange Prize party at the AGO. With a DJ playing house music in the gallery’s main atrium, Walker Court, the mood feels more like that of a rave than an art opening. The vibe is energetic and fresh, just like the works on display by this year’s nominees.

They include Montreal artist Emmanuelle Léonard, who has created a thought-provoking video of high school girls describing what makes a picture beautiful or ugly. “It explores how photography influences standards of beauty,” she says. Jason Evans, a Welsh photographer whose sprawling portfolio encompasses record covers, fashion images, portraiture, and street scenes (which he displays on his website, has placed everyday objects—sports figurines, coconuts, pompoms—on colourful pedestals. The arrangement is accompanied by text that asks viewers to take pictures of what they see, so the gallery space serves as “a starting point rather than a finishing point,” a unique conceptual twist on the role of the museum. Jo Longhurst, a former gymnast from London, UK, has earned critical acclaim for The Refusal, a body of work for which she spent years photographing purebred whippets, a breed beloved in Britain. The AGO is exhibiting an installation of 215 small images of gymnasts, some taken by Longhurst, some appropriated by her. Collectively, they question how the camera shapes ideas of perfection and social identity. Similarly, Torontonian Annie MacDonell presents photographed collages of other people’s images to challenge the notion of originality so central to art over the past 100 years.

Sophie Hackett, the AGO’s assistant curator of photography and this year’s lead Grange juror, says the award is “as much about offering an explanation of what photography means today as it is about picking a winner.” To assist in this process, an AGO staff member walks through the exhibition with an iPad open to the prize website. “Have you had a chance to vote? ” she asks me. I can either use her tablet, she explains, or the exhibition’s polling station. Or, if I prefer, I can make my choice on a device of my own sometime in the next two months. Later, when I log on to the site, I find more than a ballot. It is a busy forum featuring portfolios, backstories, podcasts, exhibition installation views, and videos about the four nominees—
a virtual and enhanced counterpart to the actual exhibition.

The combined offerings, on- and off line, constitute an impressive rethinking of what an art prize can mean in the twenty-first century, although it is clear that not everyone gets it. Walking through the exhibition, I overhear one stumped visitor ask an AGO security guard, “How do I know which photographer to pick? ” Someone else is explaining the award to a friend like this: “You vote because it’s like an art American Idol.” I leave with a question of my own: is the Grange Prize making a historic step forward, or is it turning the gallery into a game show?

Like the Salon des Refusés, the Grange Prize was not the brainchild of an authority on visual art. Over coffee one day in 2003, Rupert Duchesne, then president and CEO of Aeroplan, asked Teitelbaum, “Why not create an award that recognizes Canadian photographers? ” Today photography has an upscale and alluring art world cachet, but just a decade ago things were different. Toronto’s internationally renowned Contact Photography Festival was still a fledgling, and Vancouver artist Jeff Wall had not yet broken records with the $3.6-million (US) sale of his photograph Dead Troops Talk. Although Duchesne, an expert on consumer audience building, had no curatorial experience, Teitelbaum took him seriously. Before leaving his native England for Canada in 1995, Duchesne had advised such clients as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, UK, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Youthful and pragmatic, Duchesne has a no-nonsense perspective on the future of public galleries. As he puts it, they can no longer follow yesterday’s business model of “put up great works and hope people will come.” They must appeal to the generation that has grown up seeing art on the web, or they are “engineering a problem that will not be solvable a decade hence.” He and Teitelbaum began their collaboration on the proposed prize by studying the world’s most prestigious art awards (including Britain’s Turner Prize, the gold-standard), but they found none they wanted to emulate, because all of them followed the formula established by the Greeks in the sixth century BC, which made experts the sole authorities on artistic excellence.

With help from their colleagues at the AGO and Aeroplan, they hammered out an innovative blueprint for the Grange Prize. To give it an international dimension, they decided that two foreign candidates (from countries that would change annually) would be nominated alongside two Canadians. To heighten the award’s appeal to photographers, they decided that all four nominees would receive a six-week paid residency in Canada or the year’s partner country, an opportunity to create art away from their homes. But the most critical component, who would pick the winners, remained up in the air.

One day, at a brainstorming session, Teitelbaum challenged his staff to come up with an answer. Bruce Ferguson, then the museum’s director of exhibitions, threw out an idea: “We should think about letting the public vote.” His suggestion was made in the context of a larger discussion taking place at the AGO about the changing nature of audiences. Historically, public galleries have been judged on the quality of art that hangs on their walls, but this is no longer the case. “Not that collecting is not important,” says Teitelbaum. “The AGO is a greater institution because of Ken Thomson,” who donated his private collection to the gallery in 2002. But visitors today seek greater interaction, he explains. They want galleries to feel more accessible. They want more transparency—to know why curators say yes to one work and no to another.

Several of Ferguson’s colleagues were dubious about the concept. Some thought it sounded “too much like Survivor,” says Teitelbaum. But the idea stuck, especially after the last component of the award was established, as a way to ensure quality control. Grange nominees would always be determined by photography authorities: two from Canada, and two from that year’s partner country. Any of the finalists would thus be a worthy winner. This detail, says Duchesne, made the prize a unique blend of expertise and democracy, based on the premise that from a well-curated short list, “anybody interested in art could make as reasonable a decision about who deserves to win as some art wonks could.”

Art wonks—curators, critics, and academics—are exactly what Jane Nokes and Edward Burtynsky went after when they founded the Scotiabank Photography Award in 2010. Like the Grange, it is worth $50,000, but the similarities end there. Nokes says it would be unlikely for a photographer to win both prizes in the same year, because the Scotiabank prize “is not a popularity contest.” If you intend to search for excellence, she says, the process must rely entirely on “eminent judges who know their stuff.”

The Scotiabank award grew out of the bank’s involvement with the Sobey Art Award for contemporary Canadian art, founded in 2002 in the name of Maritime grocery magnate Frank H. Sobey. Says Nokes, “We were on the point of making it the Sobey Scotiabank Award when the Sobey family decided to keep it.” Enter Burtynsky, one of Canada’s most internationally celebrated photographers. In 2005, he asked Nokes if the bank would sponsor an exhibition at the Contact Photography Festival. She agreed and soon joined Burtynsky on the festival’s board of directors. Since 2010, Scotiabank has been Contact’s title sponsor, which made founding the Scotiabank award a logical next step.

To date, there have been two recipients: Lynne Cohen and Arnaud Maggs. While Scotiabank says the prize celebrates excellence in Canadian contemporary photography, both Cohen, sixty-eight, and Maggs, eighty-six, are senior photographers, making it seem like a lifetime achievement award. It has also presented a more conventional view of the medium than the Grange Prize, one that defines the medium as pictures that hang quietly on a wall, rather than the Grange’s contemporary view, which encompasses video, film, online imagery, and collage. In the years ahead, Nokes, now executive director of the Scotiabank award, says she hopes it will become the “Giller of visual art”—a reference to Canada’s highest-profile literary honour, which Scotiabank decided to sponsor, because it “has allowed authors to become household names.”

But there is irony in this ambition. The Giller, like other prizes, now wants to be more like the Grange. In 2011, in conjunction with CBC Radio, it introduced the Reader’s Choice contest, which invites members of the public to vote online for their favourite book from the year’s list of nominees. (This may be more than a coincidence, since Giller founder Jack Rabinovitch sits on the AGO’s board of directors.) Last August, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles announced that Botswanan painter Meleko Mokgosi would be the inaugural recipient of the Mohn Award, worth $100,000. Like the Grange winners, he was chosen via a public vote from a short list compiled by art experts.

Scotiabank’s selection of its most honoured photographer, in which a trio of judges chaired by Burtynsky picks one name from twelve finalists suggested by “pre-eminent” nominators, is a closed affair. So is the exclusive dinner for 250 guests at which the winner is announced. The winner gets an exhibition, but only in Toronto and only off line. The most exciting component of the Scotiabank award is a lushly produced book about the winner’s work, co-published by Scotiabank and the renowned German art press Steidl. Burtynsky conceived the idea, attributing a shift in his career to the international publication of his 2003 book Manufactured Landscapes. While it makes a handsome calling card for the photographer whose work fills its pages, at $100 a copy it will not be found on many coffee tables.

How is it that two prizes, founded contemporaneously and with almost identical objectives, can function so differently? When I ask the National Gallery’s Ann Thomas if the Grange is any less worthy because it invites the public into its decision making, she responds with an emphatic “Absolutely not.” Neither prize carries much more weight than the other, she explains, because what matters more to museum professionals in their choices to acquire works and put them on display “is where an artist has been collected over a period of years.”

Put another way, art prizes no longer have the influence they did back in the days of Louis-Napoleon, because modern notions of taste and expertise are subjective. Until the nineteenth century, educational institutions (including the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Royal Academy in London) codified rules—on such matters as the use of colour, brushwork, technique, and illusion—that allowed judges to apply a single standard of reference when determining good art and bad. Such regulations no longer exist, nor does a single artistic authority.

This means that the worth of an art prize does not lie exclusively in the acclaim accorded by its judges. Its value rests equally in the connections it makes with the public. Scotiabank can afford to employ the traditional methodology for determining a winner, one that likely comes closer to ascribing a critical standard of excellence, because it is not in the business of getting people into museums. It has no vested interest in whether anyone ever sees the photographs of its prize recipients. The Grange Prize, on the other hand, is about answering a question much greater than who makes the best photographs—namely, what is the future of audiences for art?

It is a cool night at the beginning of November, and excitement over the Grange Prize has grown exponentially since its launch. Over the past ten weeks, almost 20,000 people have participated in the prize by casting their votes, and tonight 2,000 of them have come out, packing the AGO to capacity, to hear who will win. But when British artist duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin announce Jo Longhurst’s name, the energy in the room deflates. Rather than shouts of elation, a fleeting round of polite applause rises from the audience.

Almost instantaneously, the whispers begin: “Of course Longhurst won. She takes pictures of beautiful dogs.” While none of the photographs from her whippet series made it into the AGO exhibition, voters found plenty of them online when they cast their ballots. Arguably, the canine mugs swayed them away from the far more conceptually challenging images presented by Evans, Léonard, and MacDonell. When it comes to art, as one frustrated curator mutters, “Democracy sucks.”

“Do I think the Grange Prize is perfect? ” Teitelbaum said to me in the weeks leading up to the announcement. “No. But I think it’s a worthy risk.” His words tacitly acknowledge that the award might make a winner of an artist for the wrong reasons. They also suggest that in order to meet the changing needs of audiences, curators need to take chances and venture into the unfamiliar online realm, where arguably the new arbiters of visual culture will be those who can bridge real-world art with its digital representations.

This is a realm that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been pioneering since the late ’90s, and where its chief officer of digital media, Erin Coburn, leads a department responsible for 44 million visits to its website annually. She says that the Met’s virtual offerings have not only increased actual visits, now at an all-time high; today many important discussions related to art at the Met “take place on sites like Facebook.” In the years ahead, she explains, looking at art will encompass “augmented reality.” We will be able to place our smart phones and tablets in front of a painting, sculpture, or photograph and see overlays of related artworks, links to images of the object undergoing conservation, and videos of curators.

Increasingly, we will experience a world in which physical gallery space is amplified in virtual space, and where artists create works specifically to be viewed online. The Grange Prize may have the trappings of a popular television show, but there is more to it than mere gimmickry. By enabling people to vote for the nominees without actually seeing their work, the AGO is saying that the images it puts online are as authentic as those it places in its gallery. “Seeing the real thing is more important,” says Teitelbaum, “but you can’t say that what you do on Google Art and what technology allows you to access isn’t authentic.” This step, equating the real with the reproduced, will be one of the most important debates in the art world in the decades to come.

The Grange Prize’s decision to bring the public into its deliberations may have originated from a desire to grow museum audiences rather than to definitively identify today’s best photographers. But when it comes to art history, these things don’t matter. Louis-Napoleon was so disgusted by, among other works, Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (he called it “an offence against decency”) that he put an immediate end to his epoch-changing experiment. For the next twenty years, independent painters had no large public space in which to exhibit their work. Still, the public had been invited into the conversation, however briefly, opening up new avenues of creativity. Ultimately, the Grange Prize is noteworthy because, whether the methodology is right or wrong, whether it prevails or not, it has already changed a centuries-old model and hinted at the possibility of an entirely new one.

This appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.

Sara Angel
Sara Angel is the executive director of the Art Canada Institute.
Ben Clarkson
Ben Clarkson has drawn for such magazines as Explore and This .