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Waiting for Godot: Behind the scenes of my BP Portrait Award 2016 article

Girl in a Liberty Dress by Clara Drummond (c) Clara Drummond. Shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award 2016

As a writer I spend a lot of time gathering information and waiting. Waiting to hear back from people, verifying facts, ensuring I have rights for the images I want to use, and then organising all of this into something that will hopefully read as an interesting and cohesive article. Plus if I am writing for a publication, I have an editor who dictates the word count and sometimes suggests an angle, which provides further parameters to work within.

When I initially approached The National Portrait Gallery (hereafter NPG) in April for a small Q&A style article about the BP Portrait Award 2016, their media relations office were very forthcoming and helpful. For a somewhat unknown writer in the art world I thought Christmas had come early. Granted I wasn’t embarking on a Watergate-style investigative piece of journalism, and this was effectively going to be a nice promotional piece of free publicity for them, however I was still pretty stoked they were prepared to talk to me. I sent along a list of questions and requested these be forwarded on to one of the judges who was directly involved with the selection process. This year this involved looking at 2,557 paintings from 80 countries and narrowing it down to 53 portraits for the exhibition.

Despite the fact that the BP Portrait Award happens in London, this is an important competition for artists all over the world. For starters if you win the first prize, that’s £30 000 in prize money which is an enormous sum for anyone, and can be life changing for an artist who might not be in a financial position to paint full time. Then there’s the fact that if you win you are invited to paint a portrait for the NPG’s collection. The kudos of the latter is unprecedented as the NPG houses some invaluable works by world famous artists. Can you imagine your painting hanging alongside, say, a Lucian Freud? But even if you don’t win or get a place in the top three, or win one of the other prizes the competition offers, if your painting makes it into the exhibition, it will get viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Perhaps even millions if you include people viewing online. And let’s not forget the nod you get from your peers.

As a portrait artist I had some questions about this competition, including the big one: What sorts of things are the judges looking for when choosing paintings for this exhibition, not just the winners. And do they have a set of criteria they discuss ahead of judging the work?

In the last two years paintings have been submitted digitally at the initial stage. If you get shortlisted from this, you send your painting in, and it gets judged again to see whether or not it makes it into the exhibition. The various winners are then chosen. This entire process happens with all the judges present in one place and it's also done anonymously. The judges don’t know who the artists are or what the stories are behind the paintings when looking at them and shortlisting.

In the judging panel each year there are a handful of people that are consistent, including the Director of the NPG, this year this was Dr Nicholas Cullinan. In addition there is Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator NPG, and Des Violaris, Director UK Arts and Culture, BP. Different judges are also invited each year to balance things out - these may be artists, art critics, directors from other museums, writers etcetera. This year the panel included Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, writer Alan Hollinghurst, and artist Jenny Saville.

These are people with very different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and opinions who bring their own criteria of what constitutes a good painting to the table. So what sorts of things might they argue or disagree about? I included this with my list of questions.

As time grew closer to my deadline, roughly a month or so after I had sent my initial questions, I started by sending a gentle reminder to my contact. Someone that had started out as being extremely quick to respond to my emails was worryingly silent. As the deadline grew even closer, and the silence resounded, I found myself panicking. I started having paranoid thoughts: Perhaps I’d asked something they didn’t want to answer. Of all the questions the only one I thought might prove tricky was one about the use of photography. The short of it is that the competition rules stipulate that paintings are done primarily from life/sittings, and photos are to be used as a supplementary source. Over the years, and especially in recent years, there have been a number of extremely realistic-looking paintings, i.e. ones indicating that they were painted primarily from photos. While no one contests that many artists work this way, it does somewhat contradict the rules of this particular competition.

My nice emails eventually turned into frantic ones accompanied by the odd phone call and eventually a shitty feeling sorry for myself email late on a Friday night (my completed article due on Monday) banging on about my contact’s lack of respect for my deadline. As a freelance writer your reputation is based on your ability to source unique stories and to then deliver the well written material ON TIME. Otherwise you look like a joke and people won't work with you. Over a three day period my contact kept promising that he was just about to send me my answers. I'd sit at my computer and ready myself to start working, and an hour would pass, then a few, then an afternoon became another day that I would receive nothing. I imagine there are more seasoned journalists out there who will respond to this by saying: “Well, get used to it, people don’t give a fig about your deadlines, we always have to chase. That’s the nature of the business and why we have a reputation for being pushy.”

Eventually on the day I was due to deliver a finished article to my editor, I got my raw material back. While my questions had been answered, the key questions were not, or at least not to my satisfaction. The NPG refused to be drawn in to any specifics about what the judging criteria were, instead I was offered the following: “The judges are looking for the best portraits, there are no specific criteria for example type or style of portrait, just the requirement for them to be eligible within the rules - such as the need for the portraits to be a painting in oil, tempera or acrylic and be painted from life with the human figure predominant.” When I persisted I received the following: “... to set out criteria that is overly prescriptive could then exclude a form or style of portraiture and you may not then get the wide range of portrait styles on show each year.”

Apart from a single attributable quote from Sarah Howgate about what distinguished this year's top three finalists, namely Clara Drummond for Girl in a Liberty Dress, Benjamin Sullivan for Hugo, and Bo Wang for Silence, I did not have my Q&A with an individual judge. Instead I had generic sounding responses from the NPG and no single person to attribute them to. In essence I didn’t have an interview or an angle. I had to push back for time with my editor and get something, because I didn't want to put my name to an assortment of information that anyone with Google could look up.

I asked the NPG if Sarah Howgate might give me some insight into the judging process and judging criteria and was told she was working to a tight deadline, and didn’t feel she could add anything to what the media relations office had already provided me.

Right, what about Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP? I sent her an email asking why BP sponsors this particular competition/exhibition, and what her experience had been judging the paintings this year/ her impressions of the work etc. Fairly standard questions, nothing too controversial. I got an email back (via the NPG) as follows: "Des has asked me to thank you for your interest in the BP Portrait Award but says she would not be able to comment on any aspect of the judging process. As regards BP’s partnerships with arts bodies including the National Portrait Gallery she says there is the BP website where there is information about their partnerships and also a film about the 2014 Portrait Award which gives a behind-the-scenes sense of the competition." In light of the relatively recent Greenpeace protests against BP that made it into the media, I was surprised that they would decline an opportunity for some genuinely positive press.

What about Jenny Saville? I really wanted to talk to her, given she’s an incredible artist and one that is well respected by her peers. What did she think of this year’s submissions? Did she notice any trends? What were her personal criteria when judging?

I contacted one of the galleries that represents Jenny who were very helpful and told me they’d forward my questions on to her. A day passed and my deadline loomed - nothing. I sent another email politely begging for a bone, something - anything. I was told one of the galleries artist liaison's was seeing Jenny in person the following day and my questions would be put in front of her. I never received a response.

And then I had an idea, it was a long shot, but I thought I’d try it. I was curious as to what had happened to the winner of last year’s competition, the Israeli artist Matan Ben Cnaan who won with his painting entitled Annabelle and Guy. While my editor told me she wanted me to talk about this year’s shortlisted artists, it also felt important to ask the question: What happens to someone after they win and is the BP important for an artist’s career?

I sent Matan an email, and low and behold a couple of hours later he responded that he was about to fly from London to Israel, but he’d be happy to talk to me on the weekend. Given the previous series of dead ends I'd encountered and that fact that I was really running out of time, this seemed almost too good to be true. But on the weekend, as promised, I received thoughtful and articulate replies to all of my questions from him. Finally my article had a personable interview element to it with a relatable individual, rather than simply being a glorified press release.

A few days later I received an email from my contact at the NPG with a link to a page on the BP website which talks about why they sponsor the arts. I appreciate he was trying to be helpful, but by this stage the article was largely written, and to be frank I was over it. I had given BP an opportunity to talk to me directly about this subject and they had opted out. However at the bottom of the page I noticed a link to an interview with the chair of the 2015 BP Portrait Award, Pim Baxter. Upon reading it I was annoyed to discover a lot of the same questions I had asked had been put to her last year, only she had willingly provided answers to them - specifically with regards to judging criteria and the sorts of things judges might disagree on. This was precisely the kind of Q&A with an individual on the judging panel I had wanted and failed to get.

When I sent the link to my NPG contact he responded that I was welcome to use the material for my piece. Yup what any good journalist wants: Having to resort to quoting material another journalist got and you didn't.

The upshot of all of this is that I got to meet Matan Ben Cnaan who in addition to being a talented artist is a solid guy, and is now a FB friend of mine. In addition, as much as I got frustrated with the interminable procrastination on the part of my NPG contact and that I didn't get my Q&A with an individual judge, they did send me images of all the paintings that will feature in this year’s BP. And to the credit of this year’s judges, even those that refused to talk to me directly (I say only somewhat sourly) there’s a really good variety and diversity of styles and approaches to portraiture this year. It certainly doesn’t feel as overly photo realistic as previous years and it's a lot more painterly. I think artists are going to approve. And finally, I managed to swing an invite to the Press morning at the NPG meaning I get to see the exhibition with other jaded journo’s the day before it opens to the public.

My article entitled 'The BP Portrait Award 2016' features in the June 2016 issue of FG Magazine.

Source and photo source: The National Portrait Gallery.

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