Walters prize 2020 nominees. Clockwise from top left: Mata Aho, AKA, 2019; Sriwhana Spong, Now Spectral, Now Animal, 2019/2020; Sonya Lacey, Weekend, 2018; Fiona Amundsen, A Body That Lives, 2018.

The conflict over conflict of interest: On the Walters Art Prize judging process

Questions are being asked about the judging process for New Zealand’s most prestigious art prize, the Walters Prize, with leading art commentators suggesting a review is necessary. 

It was a short 13 line story on Radio New Zealand’s website last Friday that signalled some discontent, somewhere, out in the artworld. The judging process for the country’s biggest art prize is above board, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki says,” it began.

The issue: of the four nominated exhibitions for the Walters Prize 2020, two were originally curated by jury members. Charlotte Huddleston, director of Auckland’s St Paul St Gallery had curated Fiona Amundsen’s A Body That Lives, and Melanie Oliver then of Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum, curated Sonya Lacey’s ‘Weekend’ as part of a larger exhibtion. The jury’s convenor, Auckland Art Gallery curator Natasha Conland, told RNZ’s Lynn Freeman that “where there was a conflict of interest, the juror was not involved in the discussion and could not vote on that project”.

Fishy? Yes and no.

Mata Aho, AKA, 2019, marine rope and steel, National Gallery of Canada, 2019. RH Photo: Alfie Cao.

The Walters is our most significant art award. Held every two years, it has an eye on artists often already exhibiting around the world for whom the award is an important push. The four nominated exhibitions are re-staged at Auckland Art Gallery (later this year, Covid-19 restrictions willing), with a $50,000 prize awarded by an overseas judge, announced after the Walters exhibition opens. 

As such the Walters should always be the occasion for much chatter, and it’s almost inevitable that will include talk of conflicts of interests and nepotism between jurors and artists. The Walters judging process has stayed pretty consistent since it began in 2002. The majority of the jury is made up of public gallery curators whose day job is to identify and support excellence. These artists and curators already share a bubble. 

The artworld in New Zealand is small, its core of cultivated excellence far smaller. If I were to draw a map of the multiple connections between recent nominees, jurors and other public gallery curators it might be almost chiaroscuro in parts due to the offsetting of dark lines to white page (welcoming your visual interpretations: artspinoff@gmail.com).

I’m very sure I wasn’t the only one who thought the 2020 nomination list looked both predictable and full of outstanding, much-deserving nominees. Amundsen, Lacey, Mata Aho Collective and Sriwhana Spong… there were no real surprises. Like, for example the inclusion last time around, in 2018, of video and installation work by Jess Johnson and Simon Ward. At the time, they were little known in New Zealand. 

The RNZ story didn’t mention why the questions about the nominations process were being asked in the first place. That’s likely because those doing the asking didn’t want their identities known. The upper echelons of the art world are not people anyone lower down the food chain wants to fall out with. But we do have an inkling. Here at The Spinoff Art we received a letter from ‘Concerned Meme-generator’ ahead of the RNZ story that, while being careful not to “begrudge the artists”, argued that the process that created such strong conflicts for two of the four nominations was “deeply questionable”.  

For me the strength of the nominated exhibitions is not in question – the Walters recognises a specific exhibition, rather than an artist’s general body of work. Nor is there any doubt as to the calibre of the four jurors: Oliver, recently appointed to a curatorial position at Christchurch Art Gallery; St Paul St Gallery’s Huddlestone; Alan Smith of Auckland University; and Nathan Pohio, a former nominated artist and curator at Christchurch Art Gallery. What is in doubt is whether, given the small group of nominees and judges, the judging process can deal adequately with such conflicts of interest. 

This is the tenth iteration of the Walters Prize. Its attention to excellence is clear from the achievements and careers of previous winners and nominees alike. Any changes to the process by which nominees are selected, and the prize awarded, must be done carefully. 

Yet, while New Zealand is small, we’re not that small. Would it be so difficult to introduce a new rule that disqualifies exhibitions with which the jurors have been directly involved? The jury would be able to consider pretty much any project or exhibition from the past two years: exhibitions in dealer galleries, public galleries and artist run spaces have all often been nominated, and they can be in New Zealand or overseas. Nor would all of the jurors need to have physically seen all of the exhibitions. Among this year’s nominations is Mata Aho Collective’s AKA shown recently at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. 

Judging processes for major awards are tweaked all the time. Britain’s Turner Prize, for example, has undergone a number of process changes, including to jury selection criteria. These days the Turner jury tends to be far broader, including gallery directors, curators, critics, novelists, and even one year Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys.

The Walters jury, on the other hand, is always unashamedly “in-house”. It consists principally of the people whose job it is to identify artistic excellence day in and day out: public gallery curators. Continuity is treasured; coordinating curator Natasha Conland has been doing the job since 2006. Each year a juror from the previous Walters jury carries on (this year it’s Allan Smith). The award doesn’t move around the country – patrons willing, it could. This is a strong but conservative model, enabling Auckland Art Gallery able to remain in firm control. And there is a clear argument to be made for this: let the experts with the knowledge of what will fly internationally make the initial selection, and then someone from outside the country can make the final call. 

It should be noted here that this isn’t the first time these kinds of conflicts of interest have arisen – there’s just never been two of them in the same year before. The 2018 jury included Stephen Cleland, curator at the Adam Art Gallery, who produced Ruth Buchanan’s Walters-winning exhibition Bad Visual Systems. In 2008 then director of Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Rhana Devenport was part of the jury that nominated Lisa Reihana’s Digital Marae, selected after being shown at her gallery. Ditto in 2004: previous Govett Brewster director Greg Burke was a juror when the eventual winner, the collective et al., was nominated for an exhibition held at his gallery. Many artists have been nominated more than once. The pursuit of excellence, as judged by leading curators, has clearly been the strong driver.  

If the art world in New Zealand is small, the world of experienced independent art writers – those not aligned to different institutions – is even smaller. We’re an even smaller club than potential Walters Prize jurors. I decided to ask other art writers for their takes, and I have to say it wasn’t easy; no wonder we’re getting anonymous letters. I also can’t help but note – and with the greatest respect to these excellent writers – that three of the four who were prepared to talk (including myself) are Pākehā men. But all who share their thoughts below are resolute in their independence, and I thank them for thoughtful contributions to the conversation.

Sonya Lacey, Weekend, 2018, (installation view), The Dowse Art Museum, 2018. Photo: Russell Kleyn.

Ema Tavola, director of Vunilagi Vou gallery in Auckland

With all due respect to the artists nominated for this year’s Walters Prize, the reminder that this moneyed award is still rolling ahead as per normal during this time of global crisis inspired a fairly big sigh. With our worlds turned upside down, the calls to reset and re-evaluate the systems that govern our lives makes this an exciting time for those who have been systemically marginalised. This is a chance to re-think social inclusion, the problematic power play of the word “diversity”, and relevance, on and offline, within the scope of our new normal. And what even is gallery culture in a time of coronavirus?! 

Auckland Art Gallery has always been behind the eight ball, playing catch up, always one or two steps from the cutting edge. It feels like an institution grounded in colonial era values, offering curators the comfort of never-ending permanent contracts, feeding and endorsing a supply chain of artists whose work aligns with and supports the backbone of art world elitism. 

As a curator who sits at a distance from this world, and resists subscribing to these tired vanilla norms, the Walters Prize feels like business as usual in an art world built on white privilege. It inspires questions about accountability (who is AAG accountable to?), nepotism (curators are not neutral), and cultural quotas (the average one in four BIPOC [Black Indigenous People of Colour] approach is not subtle). What Pati Solomona Tyrell’s nomination exposed in 2018 was the impossibility of singular judging of work that draws on worlds not represented in the AAG storehouse and wider networks. What a young, queer Sāmoan artist’s work represents to young, queer, and Moana Oceania audiences is simply not accounted for in an award programme administered within the culture of a largely Pākehā organisation. Here lies the catch-up game: nominations are great – but go further, do better. 

Fiona Amundsen, It Was a Cave Like This, 2017-18, One-channel HD video, 26min 54sec, in A Body that Lives, ST PAUL St Gallery, AUT, 28 September – 26 October 2018. Photo: Sam Hartnett.

John Hurrell, editor and critic at Eyecontactsite.com

When its public presentation eventually occurs (assuming that our municipal art galleries will reopen – with strictly controlled admission procedures), I’m greatly looking forward to seeing the 2020 Walters Prize line up. Three-quarters of the coming works I have never encountered — and that excites me enormously.

However, there are salient ethical issues with the selection process (of exhibitions, artists and jury members) that Auckland Art Gallery urgently needs to hammer out, as well as problems (relating to common sense) with the project’s guiding exhibiting principles.

Looking at the geographic spread of selecting jurors, they should represent a wide range of New Zealand cities, with only one per city allowed. It is not meant to be an Auckland-controlled gig, it is meant to be a national collection of opinions, and so should involve a pool of potential jurors from at least Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Lower Hutt, New Plymouth, and Auckland.

Alarmingly, with the coming 2020 exhibition cluster, half of it will be promoting the selecting curators’ own shows — seen earlier in other institutions — making the event reek of self interest. Nor should exhibitions (like for example, Spong’s) that the Auckland Art Gallery curator/convenor has recently worked with come into the equation [Spong’s exhibition was commissioned by the Edinburgh Art Festival and Auckland Art Gallery – ed.]. The result looks unhealthily clubby. The exhibitions should be full of surprises — all four of them.

Spong, by the way, has exhibited in the Walters Prize before, raising the question of artists having repeated shots at the $50,000 prize. In the past John Reynolds, Peter Robinson, Jacqueline Fraser, Lisa Reihana and Simon Denny have also had at least two attempts. New Zealand has a remarkable abundance of talent – why be fixated on an ‘A Team’? The exhibition needs to be kept fresh by the organisers insisting on one chance per artist, so that a high turnover of new names ensures freshness and vibrancy.

Sriwhana Spong, Now Spectral, Now Animal, 2019/2020, (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2020.

Warren Feeney, critic at The Press and editor of Artbeat

The four nominees are a worthy line up, their work giving consideration to important and urgent issues fundamental to race, gender and revisionist histories about Aotearoa, making their nomination appropriate and timely.  

Such awards have always been problematic. From our first contemporary art award, the Hays Art Prize in 1960 – when Auckland City Art Gallery director Peter Tomory selected friend and staff member Colin McCahon as one of three winner – to the present day’s Walters Prize, art awards have always been receptive to “positive discrimination” between colleagues. Over the past 30 years I have lost count of the number of occasions I have witnessed such decisions.

Yet with the nominations of works held under the curation of two of the jury members, the Walters Prize 2020 goes a bridge too far. How is this decision different from Tomory’s in 1960? Both are guilty of not following due process, and the credibility of their decisions is questionable. But for the Walters Prize, the in-house nomination of artists’ exhibitions curated by public servants and academics in public galleries also serves to benefit their careers, arguably using their position for personal gain. A review of the selection process by the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki should be a matter of urgency. 



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