Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Call for Entries: BP Portrait Award 2020 (Part 1)

This is my annual summary of what you need to do to enter the BP Portrait Award - for 2020.
This post is going to be published in two parts and tells you about

Part 1

  • why this exhibition has changed in the last two years - and I'm afraid not for the better
  • reasons from the past as to why you should enter this competition for a first prize of £35,000
  • my recommendations as to a possible approach for 2020.

Part 2 (will follow shortly) 

View of the BP Portrait Award 2019 in The Porter Gallery

But first a preamble

Much of what I am going to say was first aired in June in my posts.
I am restating key points here because it appears nothing has changed - and it's now time to take stock.

    "the most prestigious painting competition in the world"

    I've been calling the BP Portrait Award "a prestigious art competition" for well over a decade.
    Indeed I used to always START this "call for entries" blog post with a long list of reasons why it was a great exhibition to enter.

    However ONLY the National Portrait Gallery is still calling it "the most prestigious" portrait competition. (i.e.ignoring those who simply reproduce text from press releases)

    I'm not sure I am continue to call it "prestigious" going forward - for a number of reasons. Hence why I've changed the order and am now starting with this preamble to avoid any artists being disappointed.

    Few others seem to have commented on the points I have identified - at least in print. Maybe those that feel as strongly as me would still like to get into the exhibition - so don't want to ruin their chances through being seen to express negative comments. I certainly wouldn't blame them for behaving like that.

    However I personally don't submit work and - for very many years - I have instead focused on enabling artists to succeed. So if anybody is less than impressed by what I have to say I'm not really concerned - so long as the artists understand my perspective. When it needs saying, it needs saying!

    Bottom line the key points are that the exhibition:
    • is selected by people who have much less expertise in portraiture than hitherto
    • is now housed in a much smaller space with less wall space to hang paintings
    • hangs fewer paintings - of which many are small head studies
    • hangs them badly - because paintings are now skied making it impossible to inspect the work of the artist
    This for the exhibition which continues to attract the biggest number of visitors to the National Portrait Gallery - although less than it used to - despite other exhibitions attracting the "blockbuster" label!

    If there is a sensible rejoinder I'd very much like to hear it - and provide a blog post in which to publish it....

    The gallery space is now much SMALLER

    This exhibition was always held in the larger Wolfson Gallery (Room 42) - for very many years. Certainly since I started reviewing it - and I know it was in there when I used to visit it before that.  This is also a space which is a large quadrilateral which makes it easy to bring in extra dividers to increase the hanging space and route people around the exhibition - and still have room for people to manouvre around the exhibition.

    It moved.

    In 2018 and 2019 it has been in the Porter Gallery (Room 34).  Presumably at the instigation of the new (then) Director who oddly enough is NOT a specialist in portraiture.
    • The Porter Gallery has two spaces providing a SMALLER gallery - which does not promote an orderly flow
    • Since 2018, works were executed to open up the gallery and make it look more attractive - and this year the space had no dividers. The net effect was that the space looked much better - but the exhibition did not - because there was an EVEN SMALLER HANGING SPACE than in 2018!
    • It also completely EXCLUDES the BP Travel Award exhibit which is now hung elsewhere and is probably not seen by the majority of visitors to the exhibition.

    It's so small a space that they are unable to hold the announcement of the winners in there and that is now done in the Ondaatje Wing Main Hall (where the tickets are sold and school parties assemble).

    As a result of using this gallery - here are some of the consequences......

    FEWER portrait paintings are now hung in the exhibition

    It's not because selectors are being more discriminating. Indeed, the selection panel in 2019 was dominated by people who do not specialise in portraiture - which is yet another reason why this exhibition is losing prestige.
    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. BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2019 (Part 1): Overview critique
    The numbers hung have routinely been in the low 50s for many years. However the numbers in 2018 and 2019 are much reduced
    • 2018: 48 paintings
    • 2019: just 44 paintings 
    Only 44 portraits were selected in 2019 - compared to a decade of between 53 and 60.
    There has been a significant (20%) reduction in the number of portraits selected in the last 2 years compared to the number of artworks exhibited in BP Portrait Award Exhibitions held in the Wolfson Gallery in the past (due presumably due to the loss of wall space?)

    How the number of paintings exhibited have dropped in the last two years

      Complexity is being lost

      There was a marked difference between the portraits selected for the exhibition in 2018 and those selected by the (very different) selectors in 2019.  You just have to compare the images of selected paintings (see the links below) to see how much has been lost in terms of rich content and complexity.
      However both the portraits in these two exhibitions are a complete world away from (say) the paintings exhibited in 2015
      • where we can see all the images on one page - and 
      • clearly note the difference between what was selected then and what was selected for this year.

      MANY MORE SMALLER "PORTRAITS" are now included - which is very sad

      I've had to invent a new category of "TINY" when analysing the size of portrait selected for exhibition

      A small study of a head is not proper "portraiture" in my book. One only has to look around at the portrait paintings in the rest of the museum to see how those who've commissioned portraits for the Museum in the past agree with me!

      However it appears that other major portrait competitions are also going through a phase of smaller portraits (head studies only).

      It's almost as if this is the "big heads" years in reverse. (There was a point where we thought we'd never see the end of "the big heads"). 

      Now we need to see a return to portrait paintings which demonstrates real accomplishment - and the ability to paint a torso and hands - and even better the whole figure or groups of people. It is possible as was well demonstrated in some of the smaller paintings this year.
      The major thing I noticed this year is how few genuinely large portraits there are. BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2019 (Part 2): Analysis
      While a few small head studies are fine - and they have always been included - the extent to which the SIZE of works in the show have shifted (the average size has downsized) downgrades the prestige quotient for this show - in my opinion.

      Again I know I'm very much not alone in this view.

      Other portrait competitions lead the way on current issues

      For the first time in the triennial’s history, the museum specifically asked that submissions respond “to the current political and social context,” and this resulting presentation offers perspectives on some of today’s most pressing issues. The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today
      the best portrait ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia during the 12 months preceding the date fixed by the Trustees for sending in the pictures’

      • By way of contrast those who have achieved eminence in the UK have effectively disappeared from the BP Portrait Exhibition and major current themes are not promoted by the BP Portrait Award and are also much less evident (with the exception of diversity issues in 2019.)

      Whether that's an issue of who the selectors are or what sort of work gets submitted is difficult to say. However I know I'm very often impressed with the stories behind paintings and/or the choice of person painted in the portraits selected for the Outwin and the Archibald.

      Or as The Times succinctly said of the BP Portrait Award in 2019
      Review: BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery Paintings — and a prize — in search of a purpose

        The hang is DISRESPECTFUL to the artwork and the artists

        Despite there being fewer paintings (c.15%) the artwork was not treated with the respect it has received in previous years.

        I know a number of artists were unhappy about how their artwork was hung in the 2019 exhibition - and I'm on their side on this one!
        • the artwork hung looks cramped in places
        • paintings now get routinely skied as a result.
        • In my opinion, that's just plain disrespectful to the artists

        So many paintings ABOVE the heads of visitors

        I'm not sure I'm still a fan of this exhibition any more.

        The net result is I feel like I've fallen out of love with this portrait competition 

        I've been analysing this art competition and exhibition for well over a decade and a fair few of the people who entered (and indeed won prizes) did so after reading one of my blog posts (listed at the end of this post)

        However I now I find that artwork elsewhere to be far more stimulating when taken as a whole - in part because they typically have more larger portraits! That's not to say the BP Portrait has bad art - however it no longer impresses as much as it used to do in the past.

        Bottom line - it simply does not LOOK like a prestigious portrait competition.

        This year I want to make a plea for it to get back to being much more like how it was in earlier years.

        Falling numbers?

        The NPG also needs to remember that this exhibition in the past ALWAYS generated the most visitors each year
        • Earlier this year, when I was trying to find the visitor stats - a key performance measure - I could not find ANY visitor stats for ANY exhibition ANYWHERE on the website or in any documents accessible via the website. 
        • I understand that this in part is because the NPG found out - after extremely disappointing figures for 2017/18 - that the company who counts visitors had been doing it badly!
        • I understand numbers have now been reviewed / revised and visitor numbers are being published again on the website - but the figures for the Gallery as a whole approved by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) still show an OVERALL decline in visitors (25%+ down in 4 years between 2014 and 2018) - and explanations about falling numbers now seen to have shifted from errors made in counting to exhibitions should not just be judged by visitor numbers. Brining in a more diverse range of people is good. Losing visitors is not - period.
        • As an ex performance analyst for the government, I'm a huge fan of being able to see the nuts and bolts and hence like to be able to see the numbers per exhibition also being published - and Exhibition numbers have also reappeared. (see below) 
        2014-2018: Chart of what the NPG Visitor Numbers look like 
        I note that visitors to the BP Portrait Exhibition went up in 2018 (compared to 2017)  - but are still not as high as they have been on the past and are missing for 2019 (you can check numbers on this page)

        I also note I wasn't wrong when I commented on how low the numbers for the Michael Jackson must be (see The last day of Michael Jackson at the NPG) given how empty the galleries were when I visited.  This was the exhibition which shifted the BP Portrait out of the Wolfson Gallery - and then occupied the Lerner Galleries as well preventing access to collection galleries as well.

        NPG Exhibition Visitor Numbers 2017 to date

        Having reviewed the numbers in the DCMS-Sponsored Museums and Galleries Annual Performance Indicators 2018/19 published at the end of October, I note that the overall visitor numbers have continued to decline - only 1,549,896 visitors in 2018/19 AFTER the problem with the counting had been identified.

        It feels to me as if the BP Portrait Exhibition is not being treated as a potential profit centre for a national portrait gallery with a very low level of trading income - and hence is not getting the space it deserves - and maybe not the shop and products it deserves either?


        The exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery will be open to the public from 21 May – 28 June 2020 - because the Gallery is closing for a rebuild. That's
        • much shorter i.e. slightly over one month as opposed to the usual three months
        • much earlier than usual
        • PLUS a much earlier closing date for entries 11 December 2020 - which I imagine generated quite a few cries of anguish from those who had calculated drying times from the normal closure date.
        Many fewer visitors and much less time for exposure and/or a much more crowded gallery!  Not good.

        The communication about this could have been a lot better..... (i.e. I scanned all the details and totally missed this!)

        Reasons to enter the Exhibition

        The background behind the following was explained in depth in last year's blog post about the Call for Entries £35,000 BP Portrait Award 2019 - How to enter and how to improve your chances of being selected

        In summary the reasons are:
        1. You can change your life
        2. The value of the awards
        3. International standing
        4. Huge number of visitors to the exhibition
        5. Profile and status - for your CV
        6. Exposure - you may get on the publicity material
        7. Marketing / Commissions - the major reason for seriously competent professional portrait painters
        8. Great reason for visiting London
        9. Opportunity to network and make professional friends with other artists
        10. Get photographed and/or interviewed by me. 
        Benjamin Sullivan RP NEAC, the 2017 Winner of the BP Portrait Award is crystal clear that participation is everything
        Ben emphasises in the video that the REALLY IMPORTANT important thing is to be included in the exhibition rather than win a prize. Winning a prize is a wonderful bonus but shouldn't be the aim. He says being in the exhibition over the years has given him lots of exposure and lots of commissions! 
        Interview with Benjamin Sullivan, Winner of the BP Portrait Award 2017 - plus his BP portraits 2006-2016

        What approach to follow for 2020?

        It's very unlikely that you'll get selected. 

        Less than 2% of those who apply get selected for the exhibition. That's another way of saying there's more than a 98% chance you won't get selected.  However that's never stopped 2,000+ portrait artists from around the world applying!

        If you have entered more than three times and never been selected I'd like to suggest that you have a long hard think about why that might be.

        If you've never entered before, it's more important to look back at exhibitions prior to 2017 for the SIZE and standard of work which has been exhibited in the past. (see my review posts at the end of this post). PLEASE do not use the preponderance of simpler, smaller, plainer portraits in 2019 as any sort of benchmark of what gets accepted.

        The BP Sponsorship is attracting more and more criticism

        While I do appreciate that BP is doing a lot of work to make up for the very big mistakes it has made in the past - it has to be said that the brand is getting very close to TOXIC in terms of public perception and the increasingly high profile context of climate change.

        Some of the reviews in national papers and newspaper coverage of the exhibition last year focused on the sponsorship rather than the exhibition e.g.  
        Other protests included a letter from a number of former exhibiting artists including former prizewinners and BP Portrait Award winners - who wrote to the Director to protest about the BP Sponsorship. See Letter from Portrait Artists to National Portrait Gallery Director | Culture Unstained

        Museums and art galleries are also now dissociating themselves from certain brands associated with very negative activity with consequences for humanity (eg Sackler) - on an international basis. Negative PR is not a good look!

        In addition the Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaign in 2018 and 2019 have completely changed the context in which this exhibition will be held in 2020.  In 2019 we saw the massive disruption by XR to certain specific places and certain specific events. For example, they swarmed London Fashion Week - making it very unpleasant for visitors.

        This was a video posted on Facebook on 20 October - it was filmed in the Exhibition.

        My view in the past has always been let those who create toxic events elsewhere redeem themselves by having to throw LOTS of money at art galleries, art exhibitions and art competitions in order to compensate!

        However I'm not sure that's a line which will be one I can continue to support going forward - within a context of a change of mind by the community at large and the politicians.

        My view now is that it can only be a matter of time before a government says no institution receiving public funds can also receive funds from companies which have a "toxic" brand.

        The reason for that being that the taxpayer will want a say on this matter - and just as they have been very vocal on the Sacklers and their association with the opioid crisis / people's deaths - at some point in the near future, I confidently predict that any company which is not 'greener than green' in the context of the current obsession with emissions and climate change is unlikely to be associated with tax funded institutions

        Is this the right time to associate your own artwork with a brand which many consider toxic?
        In my opinion, it's certainly sufficient reason to pause and have a long hard think....

        In the meantime, I'm hopeful that it can only be a matter of time before some bright spark at a major UK Firm without negative PR realises that here is an opportunity to start grabbing positive exposure from being associated with major art exhibitions and very prestigious art galleries - and raises the value of what might be on offer as sponsorship.

        If you paint small your painting may well be "skied"

        BP Portrait Award 2019: Brendan Johnston with his portrait (at the top)

        It's one thing being able to put the exhibition on your CV because of the prestigious exhibition it has enjoyed in the past.

        It's quite another not being able to stand next to your picture because it is hung a few feet above your head - and nobody being able to see whether or not you're a good painter by examining the painting up close.

        Put simply - that is NOT GOOD ENOUGH - and is completely disrespectful of the artist - and the visitors to the exhibition - who like to be able to see the paintings properly.

        If you paint big, it's maybe even more unlikely that you will get in

        I think painting big is probably the only way to go to make sure your painting gets seen!
        However painting big might make it more unlikely you'll get selected - so only paint big if your paintings are impressive AND you have something to say.

        Like Sarah Jane Moon did in 2019!

        BP Portrait Aawrd 2019: Dr Ronx by Sarah Jane Moon
        The portrait is of the artist’s friend Ronx, who is known for dressing in suits and carefully-selected trainers. Ronx works as an Emergency Medicine Doctor and is known to audiences from CBBC’s Operation Ouch!. Ronx is respected for their active commitment to presenting a positive role model for BAME youth, and especially those from the LGBTQI community.
        If it were me thinking about a submission, I think I'd probably conclude that I'd give it a miss this year and wait and see how it plays out both:
        • externally in the context of the branding and the climate change campaigns
        • internally in terms of the prestige accorded to the exhibition re. who the jurors are; how much space it gets; how many painting get hung - and how they are hung.
        Bottom line I'd be very interested in seeing whether any more change this year is positive or negative - and how that impacts on the overall "prestige" of the exhibition.  It's all down to the management and the selectors.

        I'd very much like to see the reputational slide stop - and the exhibition regain the prestige it used to enjoy.

        If I were the organisers of this competition

        I'd start reading this blog post again.....
        ....and this one again too BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2019 (Part 1): Overview critique.
        .....and this one BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2019 (Part 2): Analysis
        why I think it runs the risk of becoming the IBM of portraiture competitions.

        ....and then have a long hard think about how to make this exhibition properly prestigious again - because right now
        • it is emphatically NOT the exhibition it used to be - and 
        • the use of the word "prestigious" is misplaced. The past made it prestigious but it is now a VERY different exhibition - and you have to continue to deliver excellence if you want to keep the language associated with excellence.

        My Blog Posts about Previous BP Portrait Exhibitions

        The exhibition review blog posts below contains lots of views of the exhibition in the galleries where they were held plus images of portraits (and the artist who had painted them) in the 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