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Turner Prize hit by controversy – but not because of the artwork

This year’s Turner Prize will be presented at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate in December (Gareth Fuller/PA)
This year’s Turner Prize will be presented at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate in December (Gareth Fuller/PA)

It is usually the art that sparks the controversy – but this year’s Turner Prize has come under scrutiny because of the choice of sponsorship.

The shortlist for the high-profile contemporary art prize features four artists with a political thread to their work.

But the spotlight at the announcement turned on the decision to pick bus operator Stagecoach South East as sponsor of the prize – which will hold its exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate.

Stagecoach Chairman Sir Brian Souter
Stagecoach chairman Sir Brian Souter (PA)

Sir Brian Souter, also known for his failed campaign to keep Section 28, the law which banned teachers and pupils from discussing homosexuality in schools, is chairman of Stagecoach.

He bankrolled the high-profile Keep The Clause Campaign against the Scottish Executive’s plans to scrap Section 28.

Last year’s Turner Prize was won by artist Charlotte Prodger with her film, shot on an iPhone, about “queer identity” and her experience of coming out as gay in rural Scotland.

When the press conference to unveil this year’s shortlist was asked if anyone had considered the choice of sponsorship a bad idea, there was an awkward silence.

Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson said that picking a sponsor “is very much a matter for the hosting venue”.

Victoria Pomery, director of Turner Contemporary, said Stagecoach South East was good for the area, adding: “I think the service that they provide is first rate.”

She said she hoped that work shown in its galleries “changes attitudes and mindsets”.

Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson
Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson (Nick Ansell/PA)

Pressed further, she added: “We have to take on board a whole range of issues when deciding our sponsorship.

“In this instance we decided that the role that the company plays in the area is very important.”

Mr Farquharson later told the media: “I think that’s probably enough on sponsors.”

Last year's winner Charlotte Prodger
Charlotte Prodger won the Turner Prize in 2018 (Emile Holba/PA)

The controversy comes as a spotlight is thrown on the issue of sponsorship in the arts.

In March, a £1 million donation from The Sackler Trust to the National Portrait Gallery was cancelled, amid the opioid drug crisis in the US.

Following the press conference, Stagecoach issued a statement, saying it “does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind based on disability, gender, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, religion, belief, age, nationality, race or ethnic origin.

“Our Stagecoach culture values transparency, diversity, and respect,” it said. “We expect our employees to commit to doing the right thing, to respect other individuals at all times and treat them with dignity, and thoughtfulness, and we are committed to providing equal opportunities for all.”

Turner Contemporary said it had “spearheaded the social and economic regeneration of Margate”, and added: “The gallery seeks to challenge assumptions, break down barriers and showcase artistic excellence.”

Tate said that taking the Turner Prize to a new location every other year “wouldn’t be possible without the host venue raising local support, and the value local businesses bring to these venues is enormously important, both to the exhibition they stage and the education and community projects it inspires”.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan (Miro Kuzmanovic/PA)

The four-strong shortlist for the 2019 prize features an artist who conducted interviews for an installation with former detainees of a notorious jail in Syria.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 34, used survivor testimonies from Saydnaya, a high-security prison which has been described as an “architectural instrument of torture”,  to create a sound installation.

The shortlist also features Helen Cammock, 48, whose film explores the history and role of women in the civil rights movement in Londonderry in 1968.

The work of Colombian-born Oscar Murillo, 33, already a success in the art world, includes installing industrial ovens to make “sculptures made of corn mixed with clay, resembling rocks or bread, in a work addressing consumption, labour and basic human sustenance”.

Portrait of Helen Cammock
Helen Cammock (Magda Stawarska-Beavan/PA)

Self-taught artist Tai Shani, 42, explores “feminine subjectivity and experience through a Gothic/science-fiction lens”.

An exhibition of work by the four shortlisted artists will be held from September 28 2019 to January 12 2020 at Turner Contemporary in Margate.

The winner of the £40,000 prize will be announced on December 3 at an award ceremony broadcast live on the BBC.

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