The Aspect Prize, as profiled by Anna Burnside in Ecosse, Sunday 13 December 2010
From The Sunday Times
December 13, 2009
Taking the struggle out of the artist
By Anna Burnside
What do you do when your love for contemporary art is so great that merely collecting it is not enough? This question is probably not taxing many of us as we squeak through the most expensive season of the year but, in the happier days of 2001, it crossed the mind of entrepreneur Mike Adam.
Adam, already a knowledgeable and deep-pocketed supporter of Scottish art, was ready to take his passion a stage further. He asked his old friend Charlie Jamieson, an established painter of seductively cheerful landscapes, how one started an art prize. Jamieson had no earthly idea.
Together, the two did some research. “The pitfalls are enormous,” recalls Jamieson. A meeting with the Scottish Arts Council led nowhere. In the end, they linked up with the Paisley Art Institute — Jamieson was its president at the time — and took it from there.
Their starting point was to ask: what do artists need? Jamieson was ideally placed to answer this question; he graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1974 and has painted full-time since. He makes a comfortable living today, but the early days were tough.
“It’s a long struggle,” he says. “What artists need are the opportunities to show their work and the financial wherewithal to make it,” he says.
Together, he and Adam set up the award Jamieson would like to have won at the critical stage of his career. Now known as the Aspect prize, it is open to painters living and working in Scotland, who have not had a solo exhibition in London for the past six years: “Either they haven’t started yet, or their career has gone down the tubes.”
Unlike the Turner prize, which has a cut-off point at 50, the Aspect prize has no age limit. Anyone Scottish, or who lives and works here, can enter, and four artists are placed on an annual shortlist. Each gets £5,000 and is sent away to paint for six months. Their works then go into a group show in London, where the overall winner is chosen and trousers an additional £10,000.
The first winner, Liz Knox, was already a grandmother when she scooped the award. When Alistair Pender won last year, he was down to his last few hundred pounds and living in his car. He quickly sold two large pieces for £16,000 each.
The way the Aspect prize operates, says Jamieson, means that everyone on the shortlist is a winner. “It gives them an opportunity to be seen and bought. People keep coming back to us, saying how the award has boosted their career.”
Being on the Aspect shortlist gives artists a point of entry with London galleries. It is up to the finalists, the judges make clear, to make the most of it. “We print the catalogue, give them 100 copies and say, go round the galleries and sell yourself. This is their chance to say, this is me.” This crash course in self-promotion has paid off and the Aspect show has welcomed some of London’s most important gallery owners through its doors.
This year, the four very different shortlisted artists — Scot Sinclair, Paul Kennedy, Alec Galloway and Patricia Cain — will be shown at the Fleming Collection in Mayfair in January. This is both a scoop and a step into the dark for the Aspect organisers. The Fleming is home to arguably the finest private collection of Scottish art in the world and is a prestigious venue for an exhibition. The gallery’s curator, Selina Skipworth, is on the judging panel and she will choose one of the winner’s paintings for the collection.
Any one of them would sit happily in the wood-panelled gallery that is home to everything from the Scottish colourists to Charles Avery drawings. Jamieson calls them “ a really interesting foursome”.
Sinclair, a former building site labourer, is the first non-resident Scot shortlisted. He teaches at the University of Louisiana and produces vast canvases, painted with household emulsion, playing with what he calls “the flowing texture of the painting’s surface”.
Kennedy, just five years out of Edinburgh College of Art, works as a community artist in Glasgow and paints piercing, plangent portraits.
Galloway is best known as a stained-glass artist, so Jamieson is intrigued to see his painting make it on to the shortlist. “This is the work he does in parallel. I like that. It means he comes at it from a different angle.”
Cain vacillated between art and law before she completed her fine art degree in 2004. She is fascinated with building sites and is at present documenting the progress of the new Museum of Transport on the Clyde.
The range covered by this shortlist is, says Jamieson, a sign of the Aspect prize’s maturity. “We attract a wide variety of entries. The wider the better, as long as it’s painting. It can be oil on canvas, airbrush, anything. In the initial years, everyone thought we were very figurative.” It became a self-fulfilling prophecy: “We can only choose from what comes through the door and there were not as many abstract and inventive things as we see now.”
Jamieson and Adam have secured three years’ funding from Aspect Capital, the investment management company established by Adam and three others in 1997. Money is tight and Jamieson would like to spend more on PR, on taking the Scottish judges to London, and on advertising the show. For him, it is both a labour of love and a point of principle: he wants to support Scottish artists at the most vulnerable time in their careers, and he suspects that privately financed awards are the only way to do it.
“State funding for painting doesn’t really exist,” he says.
“Prizes like this, that’s where the funding is.”
Since becoming involved with Paisley Art Institute and setting up the Aspect prize, Jamieson has seen artists working in conditions that would have been an outrage in the 19th century, never mind the 21st.
“I have been in many, many studios and seen conditions that are Dickensian. I know artists in their 20s and 30s who have chest complaints because their studios are so cold and damp.”
Jamieson is already itching to discuss the finer points of policy with new arts minister Fiona Hyslop. He is also keen to move on the debate about the Duke of Sutherland’s controversial Titians, and consider what else could be done with £50m of public cash.
“People call you a heathen if you don’t support saving the Titians,” says Jamieson, who has nothing but admiration for Diana and Actaeon, already bought for £50m, or its companion piece, Diana and Callisto, which is still up for sale.
“But the country has been looking after these paintings since 1945, housing them, insuring them. They have already cost us a fortune. The Duke is a very wealthy man. It is not the first time he has hit the country for a lot of money for a painting. We don’t need to pay another £50m.”
The Duke should, he says, do the decent thing and donate the painting to the nation, leaving a pot of cash to be spent on the living artists who are struggling along on dole money and teaching jobs.
“I know so many fantastic artists. We’ll fill the spaces in the gallery walls. If we put that money into supporting them, think what fantastic collections we would have in Scotland.
“Alex Salmond should call the man’s bluff. We have already spent a lot of money on these paintings. Can it be morally right to spend £50m on a Titian when there are young artists with bronchitis?”
In this political climate, Jamieson thinks the Aspect prize is more important than ever. “It is a labour of love for me, but I wouldn’t not do it. It started in my front room and I remain convinced that it is a really good thing.”