Monday, July 22, 2019

BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2019 (Part 1): Overview critique

Entrance to the BP Portrait Award 2019

This year it's the 40th year of the Portrait Award which started in 1980.Time to take stock - so I'm dividing my review of the the BP Portrait Award 2019 exhibition into two parts as follows.


This includes
  • my overall impression of the exhibition
  • a commentary on the relative status of this exhibition after 40 years- as it downsizes in more ways than one
    • the overall quality of portraits hung
    • the major problem with the hang
    • the competence of the Judging Panel this year
    • the lack of a leader of contemporary portraiture who drives the rigor in relation to both development of the competition and selection of portraits
  • why I think it runs the risk of becoming the IBM of portraiture competitions.

PART TWO - ANALYSIS & what's changed

This covers my analysis of what has changed in this year's exhibition - LESS and SMALLER are recurrent themes
  • a detailed analysis of what has changed in terms of number of portraits, size and type, composition and colour and who are the subjects - with some number crunching for comparison with last year
  • what I liked in terms of portraits

The hang makes it difficult to see all the portraits this year - except from a distance

This review is much later than usual. I wrote my first two posts back in June - see
One of the reasons for the hold up was I was trying to post my video interview with Charlie Schaffer and spent a very frustrating day trying to work out why my video software wouldn't work properly. (Still not worked that 64 bit upgrade issue out!). Then when I reviewed my photos I realised that I needed some better ones for the review of the exhibition. Great ones of individual paintings and artists with their paintings - but not ones which gave a good sense of the exhibition.  So had to go back and take some more.

I have a problem with writing reviews when I have something negative I really want to say....

Which might just have been the biggest reason for the delay.  I've said bits of what I want to say to various people and I now need to write it down too.

[Let me know what you think on the related post on my Facebook Page where comments are currently accumulating quickly!]

The most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world? Really?

The BP Portrait Award is the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world and represents the very best in contemporary portrait painting. BP Portrait Award 2019 microsite - introduction 
I think this statement is what prompted the tenor of my review this year.

Two assertions are made which I think need challenging i.e. that this portrait competition is
  • the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world
  • represents the very best in contemporary portrait painting
I guess the BP Portrait Award can still make some claim this title but ONLY because it's the one major portrait painting competition which gets entries from across the world. Most of the others are restrictive as to where the artist lives and only take entries from people who live in the host country.

It's certainly NOT prestigious because it's the portrait painting competition with the most impressive cash prize.  

The First Prize is £35,000 and the potential for a commission from the National Portrait Gallery. Sounds good until you look at the competition!

Cash prizes for portrait painting competitions around the world include:
  • The Archibald Prize run by the Art Gallery of New South Wales
    • AUS$1000,000 First prize (= c.£56,500) 
    • awarded annually to the best portrait, 'preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia’. 
    • The artist must have been resident in Australia or New Zealand for the eligibility period
  • The Doug Moran Prize run by the The Moran Arts Foundation (a charity)
    • AUS$150,000 First Prize (= c.£85,000) 
    • encourages both excellence and creativity in contemporary Australian portraiture and has a huge cash prize - but only for Australians!  
    • The competition requires that the artist is an Australian citizen or resident for the 12 months preceding the entries close date and so must your sitter.
  • The Outwin Boochever Prize run - on a triennial basis - by the Smithsonian
    • $25,000 + a commission (= c.£20,000 + commission)
    • The competition is only open to professional artists age 18 and over who are living and working in the United States (and its territories).  
    • It might not have a big prize but it's beginning to leading the pack in terms of innovation in 2019!
    • See my blog post last year Call for Entries: 2019 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition
For the fifth triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery invites artists across the United States to broaden the definition of portraiture through submissions in all visual arts media including but not restricted to painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, printmaking, textiles, video, performance, and digital or time-based media. The resulting exhibition, opening in November 2019, will celebrate the portrait’s capacity to reveal facets of its subject’s identity. Whether realist or allegorical, participative or activist, intimate or documentary, each of the selected artworks will underscore the enduring relevance of portraiture in contemporary life.
Artists have complained loudly that the BP Portrait Award is stuck in the past since it is so restrictive as to what media can be used for an entry!  The entries do not get hung in the NPG so why restrict the entries to media which would allow the entry to hang on the walls of the gallery for many years? Only those competing for the prizes need to demonstrate competence in creating archival paintings while working from live sitters.

It's not prestigious (i.e. exceptional) because of where it is held - because other national art museums also host portrait competitions

It's not prestigious in terms of the calibre of the Judging Panel.  Absolutely NONE of the Judges in 2019 have any involvement as an expert on contemporary portrait painting on a routine basis and/or are established Portrait Painters who work to commission.

It's certainly NOT the portrait competition with the most innovative portrait paintings.  In my view, I think both the Archibald and the Outwin Boochever have and will both generate much more innovative approaches to contemporary portraiture from the artists who enter their competitions - and much more complex and interesting portraits with more diversity in terms of media and its application.

I disliked a number of aspects of this exhibition - most of which impact on the reputation of the competition. 

This is the best of what was submitted?

Make no mistake, there are a lot of good portrait paintings in the exhibition.  However
  • 'good' does not, overall, equate to exciting.
  • there are also rather a lot of very ordinary and wholly unexceptional portraits. 
  • Some were just plain boring and/or fuddy duddy. I'll comment at more length tomorrow.
One would like to think that the exhibition standard should be such that MOST of those selected for the exhibition would be capable of producing a portrait to NPG required commission standards but sadly that's simply not the case.

The totality of the portraits selected in no way represents the best of contemporary portraiture today. That's "no way" in relation to other contemporary portraiture exhibited in the UK and also in relation to the rest of the world.

I've been left wondering what got left behind in the stacks in the room where the Judging was done.

Was it really the case that the selectors could find so very few exciting and/or challenging and/or LARGE and/or COMPLEX portrait paintings from the submissions?

Or it it the case the selection of the paintings for the exhibition was in effect dictated purely by the amount of space available in the Porter Gallery? I have to say I very much suspect the latter has been very influential.

Or is it about who was on the Judging Panel this year (see below)

You may think I'm being picky. However even those who have not visited the exhibition can look at the portraits and compare them to other prestigious portrait exhibitions - and see what conclusions you draw.

COMPARE the portraits selected for the BP Portrait Award 2019 Exhibition with (say)

The problems with the hang

Let's start with the reason why portrait artists enter competitions - and in particular what's different about an art competition about portraiture to any other art competition.

To become a portrait painter you must:
  • be prepared to mainly earn your living through commissions (although some also teach and/or paint still lives)
  • be able to work to commission
  • prospective clients need to be able to see your portraiture work close up
  • market your portraiture to potential commission clients via exhibitions and online - so that clients can see and appreciate your work
One of the rationales for a portrait painter to enter the competition is 
  • to get their portrait painting seen by the public and potential future clients
  • to earn portrait commissions from their portrait as seen in the exhibition
  • to develop their careers as portrait painters - or to fulfil a wish to become a portrait painter
All of the above rather assumes that the viewing public can see their portrait painting properly!

What's happened I think with this year's hang is that whoever hung it went for a quasi aesthetic appeal rather than anything whatsoever to do with the artists' motivation for entering

The majority of the portrait paintings on the end wall are above a comfortable 

The major problem with the hang is that a significant part of it feels quite 'apart' from the viewing public - i.e. the people who may want to commission an artist to produce a portrait for them.
  • it might look good from a distance - but you simply cannot see all the portraits - because they are hung so high. For example a lot of the end wall have portraits hung above head height - i.e. so high it is absolutely impossible to look at them properly. 
  • I counted and nearly 20% of the portraits in the exhibition are hung far too high - which is completely ridiculous 
  • This type of hang certainly completely "dents" the notion that this is a prestigious portraiture competition
In my view it is entirely disrespectful to treat portrait painters in this way - as if this was "just another art exhibition".

If you "sky" a portrait you are insulting and disrespecting the portrait artist - it's as simple as that.

More portraits hung way above people's heads - even those who are tall!

Visually the hang might look attractive - from a distance - but from the perspective of an artist who is hoping to have his painting appreciated by a potential client it is really not at all helpful to hang it in this way. I met some artists on the press view morning who were really rather upset by what had happened - and I sympathise very much with their perspective.

However if you select Judges - not one of whom knows what it's like to be an artist who works in commission - what can you expect?

The problem with the Gallery

Gallery has been opened up - which makes it look better - but lost walls for hanging in the process

The exhibition has been DOWNGRADED - it no longer occupies the most important galleries in the National Portrait Gallery - as it did for very many years. 
  • The last two years has seen the location of the competition's exhibition moved (see below)
    • from the large Wolfson Gallery (Room 42) 
    • to the Porter Gallery (Room 34) 
  • This is despite the fact that it is the only exhibition held at the NPG during the year which has regularly achieved between 250,000 and 350,000 visitors in the past
This in turn has had a MAJOR impact on the number and size of the portraits being hung.
  • The number of portraits hung have been radically reduced as a result by more than 20%.  
  • The number of UK artists exhibiting in the exhibition have also been halved compared to the number not that long ago.
The Gallery also uses a large part of one wall ( on the left as you enter) for TEXT(!) about the exhibition and its sponsor - which it could have located either side of a short artificial wall / screen located between the two entrance doors - not obscuring views and not taking up valuable wall space for the paintings!!

In my experience very few people ever look at the text and there's some considerable scope to look at a major prune of the amount of text. It seems to have expanded a LOT over the years - and lost sight of the fact that wall space is for hanging paintings!

downloadable plan of the size of location and size of the different galleries

I'm left wondering if the relocation of the exhibition has also led to a decline in visitor numbers - given that this has always been the most popular exhibition at the NPG every year - by some way. For example in 2011, the BP Portrait Award 2011 had 341,050 visitors.

NPG chart of its declining visitors
see National Portrait Gallery - Visitor Numbers 1980 - 2018

(Incidentally, look for details of visitors to any of the recent exhibitions on the NPG website and you' won't find them - just a chart with a steep decline in relation to overall numbers since 2015. Which is really odd for a Gallery which recently discovered that it has had some really serious problems with counting numbers - and for one which gets public funding for which it has to be accountable.

SEE London's National Portrait Gallery's steep decline in visitors due to counting error)

So why move the exhibition?

Last year the Wolfson and neighbouring galleries to the right of the Main Hall were given over to the Michael Jackson exhibition. You can read what I thought of that in The last day of Michael Jackson at the NPG - and see for yourself how few people there were in the galleries which are normally packed every day of the week with people viewing the BP Portrait Award Exhibition. I couldn't believe it. In my experience true "blockbusters" (elsewhere) in their final week are absolutely stuffed with visitors at all hours of the day and the specially extended late entries. If that doesn't happen then it is by definition NOT a blockbuster!

I certainly wasn't alone in being unimpressed.
This year, the rooms are occupied by the Cindy Sherman retrospective exhibition which has garnered better reviews and certainly makes good use of all the rooms. But I'd maintain that the NPG could have both exhibitions using the largest gallery - if they had a rethink on timing.

Bottom line - I'm not at all happy about the downgrade in terms of location and its impact on the number and size of what gets shown - and the hang - and I don't suppose those entering the competition are either.

When is the BP Portrait Award going to review its purpose and scope?

More faces with an African heritage in the exhibition this year
What we got this year was quite a bit of hoopla about how it was 40 years since the BP Portrait Award (John Player Award 1980-1989; BP Portrait Award 1990-2019) started

However - so far as I am aware - there has been no consultation of what the basis is to claim it's the most prestigious portrait competition - and how to maintain that claim - or serious attempt to
  • take stock of how portraiture has changed in the last 40 years
  • take the opportunity to review whether - after 40 years - there maybe ought to be a review of 
    • either the nature of portraiture which this Award should support 
    • or the media which this competition should allow - since portraits are not being added to the permanent collection of the NPG. (Criteria could be changed to the effect of only those working in oil, acrylic or egg tempera are eligible for the top prizes.)
    • or whether it should change its name to the Portrait PAINTING Award (given the current limitation of its scope and the fact that the Gallery also has the Taylor Wessting Portrait Photography Award)
  • consider whether - given its increasing international status - the financial reward offered should be a lot more than than it is at present.
  • consider whether BP is really the best sponsor for the award in the context of a contemporary society which is increasingly concerned about the use of fossil fuels.
  • consider whether it it continues in the Porter Gallery (I'm aware of the proposals to reconfigure the structure of the National Portrait Gallery an rehang its collection - and this Exhibition needs a much better location!)
In my view, I think there is a real danger that the BP Portrait Award has been 
  • "resting on its laurels" in terms of purpose and scope
  • could be caught napping in the future and/or potentially damaged by its sponsorship
Indeed I think there is a very real risk it's turning into the IBM of portrait competitions. (what happened to IBM)

Contemporary portraiture's equivalent of a young Bill Gates / Steve Jobs has not yet turned up to give it a major kick where it needs it most. I don't necessarily want this Award to be entirely revolutionised and rethought - but I do want to see a LOT more evidence that this is portrait competition which is led by somebody who is absolutely PASSIONATE about contemporary PORTRAITURE.  (I'm thinking in particular of how refreshing the selection was the year we had Jenny Saville as the guest artist - which was a really inspired choice and, I gather one which really changed the way judging panel made its choices.)

Or as somebody said to me very recently
"It's such a pity that the Director of the National Portrait Gallery has absolutely no curatorial background in portraiture".
My mouth dropped - and so I looked Nicholas Cullinan up - and I finally understood at last what I'm missing.

I then looked at who made up this year's judging panel and the members were
  • (CHAIR) Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery. 
  • Gaylene Gould - Head of Cinemas and Events at the BFI Southbank - great background in driving audience engagement - but I'm struggling with her relevance to judging a portrait painting competition
  • Gary Hume - artist - came to prominence in the early 90s as one of the YBAs; known for depicting everyday subjects using high-gloss industrial paints; has produced some highly stylised and simplistic paintings of figures - but it would be a stretch to call any of them them portraiture (based on what I've seen)
  • Alison Smith - Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery - with lots of credibility around portraiture over the centuries - but I am left wondering why Sarah Howgate, the Senior Curator for Contemporary Portraiture is not on the Panel
  • Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts & Culture, BP - the prime mover behind BP's support for the Arts and BP's rep on the Judging Panel 
  • Zoé Whitley Senior Curator of the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London - no obvious background in portraiture and no background whatsoever in painting
So basically
  • one expert in portraiture - but one whose background is firmly embedded in the history of portraiture - as entirely appropriate for a National Portrait Gallery.
  • one painter - but not one who paints portraits. Nor one who uses conventional paints(?)
  • one expert in contemporary art - but no background in portraiture
  • two ladies who represent a tick in the cultural diversity box and who are both big on community engagement but who have no involvement whatsoever with contemporary portrait painting per se
  • a sponsor - who is perennially involved (but why?). I guess the question of whether sponsors should ever get to judge art competitions is a whole other blog post/debate? (see more below)

I'm certainly not seeing any driving force or artistic rigour of the type that Jenny Saville or Daphne Todd bring to the party.....

I found out after visiting the exhibition - and encountering the BP Protesters - that at least one of the Judges also had an issue with the sponsorship of this Award.
“As the impacts of climate change become increasingly apparent, the gallery will look more and more out of step by hosting an oil-branded art prize,” the judge and artist Gary Hume wrote in a letter to the gallery’s director, Nicholas Cullinan. “Continuing to promote BP as the climate crisis intensifies will do unacceptable damage to the NPG’s reputation, relationships and public trust. I urge you to commit now to finding an alternative.”
At a minimum, no corporate funder should compromise our artistic integrity. I therefore urge you, as a first step, to no longer allow a BP employee to sit on the award’s judging panel. There should be no role for an oil company in the artistic decisions of any cultural organisation, and especially not in determining the winner of the world’s leading portrait award. Gary Hume

Tomorrow Part Two discusses more detailed aspects of the exhibition.

I'll be looking at

  • what has changed - in terms of the overall number, size, type and composition of portraits and who are their subjects - with some number crunching for comparison with last year. 
  • Plus what I liked in terms of portraits. 
  • my overall conclusions......

My Blog Posts about Previous BP Portrait Exhibitions

BP Portrait Award 2019

BP Portrait Award 2018

BP Portrait Award 2017

BP Portrait Award 2016

BP Portrait Award 2015

BP Portrait Award 2014

BP Portrait Award 2013

BP Portrait Award 2012

BP Portrait Award 2011

BP Portrait Award 2010

BP Portrait Award 2009

BP Portrait Award 2008

BP Portrait Award 2007