The winter before last, Katherine Soper was working as a shop assistant in the Regent Street branch of Penhaligon’s. By day she sold scents and smart soaps; by night she wrote plays, wondering whether she might ever get to hear her words spoken by actors. Then suddenly her break came. Her first play – called, appropriately, Wish List – was accepted, cast, rehearsed… and in September 2016 it opened to acclaim at the Royal Exchange Theatre’s studio in Manchester. “The writing is extraordinary” ran the review in The Stage. In January this year it transferred to London, to the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.
The catalyst for this change in Soper’s fortune was a competition established by Michael Oglesby, founder and chairman of the Bruntwood Group of commercial property companies, in conjunction with the Royal Exchange. “My wife Jean and I have always loved the theatre,” says Oglesby, who in 2005 set up The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in collaboration with the Royal Exchange (Bruntwood Group sponsors the prize, but the Oglesbys’ Manchester-based charitable trust also supports a diverse range of other causes; in 2016, the two between them donated more than £3.4m to worthy causes, mostly in the northwest of England.) “We’d sponsored a number of new plays and felt we were getting a lot out of our involvement,” he says. “But we really wanted to be on the cutting edge, to support things that were new and bold, and that’s when the idea of the prize for original writing came up.”
The resulting award – usually worth £16,000 to the winner and £8,000 apiece to the three runners-up – has proved a springboard for several distinguished playwrights, not least Duncan Macmillan, who was a runner-up for the inaugural Bruntwood Prize in 2005 for his play Monster and whose recent successes include the National Theatre’s People, Places and Things and (with Robert Icke) an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 that has now been seen by more than 250,000 people at the Almeida and in the West End.
Of course, there is more to financing an award than the prize money itself, which, as Oglesby explains, accounts for only about one-fifth of the total cost. “Last year nearly 2,000 plays had to be read, so there’s a whole team going through them at the Royal Exchange and whittling them down.” The shortlist of 10 then goes to a panel of distinguished judges that includes Oglesby himself.
“For anybody with an interest in theatre, doing something like this really takes things to the next level. You’re deeply involved with the directors, producers, the whole process and business of putting on a play. And to be there on the day when the winners receive their awards really is transformational. Very few have had any sort of career in playwriting, and suddenly they’re a playwright. It really is extremely rewarding to be able to take part in that. It’s wonderful for the theatre, for playwriting in general – and for us.”
Most of all, though, it is wonderful for the winner. As Soper tells me, it’s rare to be able to pinpoint precisely the instant when your life changes. But upon hearing Nicholas Hytner, the chairman of that year’s judges, announce her as winner (“The play has such eloquence, such quiet craft, such dignity and such compassion,” he said), she “really had the sense that this was a moment I’d look back on; that I had had a life before then, but I had a totally different one now”. Not that it’s gone to her head. Indeed, she still does the occasional shift at Penhaligon’s: “I’m writing pretty much full time now, but it can be a bit isolating, so I quite like having a social job too.”
The desire to help propel promising careers in another aspect of the theatre was the catalyst for the creation of The Linbury Prize for Stage Design, a prestigious biennial award open to final-year students and recent graduates in scenography, in which being a finalist can make all the difference in forging a career. After her retirement as a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, Anya Linden, now better known as the philanthropist Lady Sainsbury of Preston Candover (her husband is one of the supermarket-dynasty Sainsburys), enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art to retrain as a stage designer and was struck by how hard it was for even the most stellar graduates to get into the profession. “I was making a will after the birth of my second child,” she says, “and among the various causes I was going to leave money to, I wanted to do something for young designers, and I suddenly thought, this is stupid, why don’t I do it now for the fun of it – and so I can see it work?”
The prize’s significance to the 12 finalists is not so much the money (each receives £2,000 to cover expenses; four winners receive a further £2,500 and a professional commission with a fee of £4,500; with the overall winner getting an extra £1,000), but the kudos, work experience, publicity and exposure it brings, as well as several priceless chances to network, not least at an event known as the Marriage Bureau. Here, they get to meet 36 directors in a single morning. As one former laureate of the overall prize, Ana Inès Jabares-Pita, recalls: “It worked really well for all of us. We stood in front of our stands, and the directors came round in groups of three and asked us questions about our work and talked about theirs. It’s amazing how in such a short time you can know if the person you’re talking to will be a good collaborator or not.”
Not only has Jabares-Pita’s career thrived since winning (coincidentally she was commissioned to design Wish List), but the prize has also taught her a lot about how the industry works. “It made me aware of how important it is to be part of a creative community, to support others and help them to develop their skills and to shine. Winning the Linbury has definitely been a career‑changing experience. And now I feel I have the responsibility to return that favour to the audience by trying my best to raise standards in theatre design.”
For art cannot thrive in a vacuum. Hence the decision by John Studzinski, a vice chairman and a senior managing director at multinational investment giant Blackstone, to establish the Genesis Prize, which recognises people who mentor those striving to forge creative careers in the arts. “Prizes encourage the rest of the planet to take notice of what other people are doing,” he says. “The original purpose or strategy or motivation of the Genesis Foundation [which he set up in 2001] was to nurture young artists and give them their first break” – an aim it pursued via projects such as the young directors programme that Studzinski set up with David Lan at the Young Vic, and the first recipient of which was Rufus Norris, who is now artistic director of the National Theatre.
But it concerned Studzinski that those doing the nurturing were too often overlooked. “Not everyone is going to get a knighthood; not everyone gets acknowledged,” he says, noting that the arts rely on more than the creatives behind them, and that those who provide the infrastructure in which they thrive deserve recognition as well. So the purpose of the prize is to find good role models in society, in the arts world or elsewhere, who are focused on mentoring and maintaining an ongoing network of support for young people,” he says. “It’s not just giving them their first break, but staying by them. They need people to support them, to give them advice, to act as a sounding board, to motivate them. Artists don’t always succeed first, second, even third time. I think it’s a weakness in society that there aren’t enough people out there mentoring young artists.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the prize’s two most recent recipients, Polly Staple, director of the not‑for-profit Chisenhale Gallery, a hugely influential crucible for contemporary art in east London, and Hadrian Garrard, director of Create London, which “exists to explore the ways artists can contribute to the lives of people in cities”, opted to invest their £25,000 winnings in projects linked to the organisations they run. Staple divided hers between four artists; Garrard is using his to create a programme to support aspiring curators. Evidence that charity begets charity.
It was a result Studzinski did not expect, but it was also one he was delighted by. Indeed, so gratifying has he found the whole experience of setting up a prize that “I’m thinking of setting up another,” he says. “I’m going to be announcing something within the next six months.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the artist-turned-curator Ximena Caminos, founder of the biennial Faena Prize for the Arts. She set up the prize with her husband, the Argentinian property developer Alan Faena, in 2008, and describes her involvement in it as “pure happiness”. Intended “to support the most innovative and contemporary in artistic creation” and “help promote artists’ work to an international audience and support them in the realisation of their dreams”, it is worth $75,000 to the winner. The proviso is that the victor must use at least two-thirds of this on the production of a large-scale work or exhibition for the Faena gallery space in Buenos Aires, an experience Caminos says frees them from “the pressures of the market” and allows them to make whatever they like.
“It is one of the projects dearest to me,” she says, explaining that though she does not sit on the judging panel – a distinguished international jury that last year included Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions Achim Borchardt-Hume; Caroline Bourgeois, curator of the Pinault Collection; and Carlos Basualdo, a senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – she convenes it and runs the competition. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” she continues. “Most prizes have age limits and all sorts of criteria, but we decided to make ours an open call. There are no rules or restrictions now. The award is basically a ticket to freedom.” Last year’s edition, which was won by Birmingham-born Roger Hiorns, consequently drew more than 400 entries from 70 countries. “We feel too that it’s important for a country like Argentina to have an international award like this. And it’s great to know you can help in launching an artist’s career or creating a turning point for them.”
If the Faena Prize attracts entries from a broad constituency of artists, young and old, the Freelands Award, which was founded last year by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Freelands Foundation, has an altogether narrower focus, having been set up in response to research that showed how few female artists, especially those who have reached middle age, manage to secure solo exhibitions in public galleries in the UK, particularly outside London. “Women artists in mid-career are still woefully under-represented in the art world and this award aims to raise their profile,” she said at the time of its launch, adding that she hoped too that it would “be about pushing boundaries and helping regional arts organisations fulfil their potential”.
Named after the Freelands Foundation and indeed the Freelands Group investment fund, both of which Murdoch set up after selling her television production company Shine, the prize is worth a total of £100,000 and intended to encourage galleries to propose exhibitions by already established female artists who may have been overlooked. Glasgow-based Jacqueline Donachie, for example, had, in Murdoch’s words, “never had an exhibition that brought together new and existing work to allow an appraisal of her practice as a whole”. Thanks to the prize, this is an oversight soon to be remedied at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, which won the first edition of the competition with a proposal for a survey of work by Donachie (who receives £25,000) to be staged later this year.
Cathy Wilkes, who also lives and works in Glasgow, is the recipient of another new award aimed at mid-career artists, male and female – this time the biennial €50,000 Maria Lassnig Prize, envisioned by and named after the Austrian artist, who herself only began to achieve global recognition well into her 60s. It is a shame she did not live long enough to see her dream of supporting her fellow artists fulfilled. As Peter Pakesch, chairman of the foundation set up in Lassnig’s name, puts it: “She was always engaged in the efforts of others as a teacher and peer, and in her last years spoke of hoping to find some way to acknowledge those longstanding artists whose work deserves broader attention and appreciation.” So again the prize includes an opportunity to exhibit, in this case a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 space in New York. For while a generous injection of cash is always welcome and can make a very real difference to an artist who is struggling to pay for the materials needed to express their imagination, ultimately it’s the attendant exposure that turns one-off awards into game changers.
Win one of the 21 places on the shortlist for the Future Generation Art Prize – which is restricted to those under 35 and was founded by the Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist Victor Pinchuk, in support of his belief that “art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics” – and, of course, those artists will be crossing their fingers that the overall prize of $100,000 will be theirs. But the 20 runners-up, chosen this year from 4,421 entries from 138 countries, also get to have their work exhibited for the duration of the Venice Biennale at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac. There it is seen by virtually every collector, curator, critic and dealer of note. Capture their imagination as, for instance, the now highly sought-after British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye did when she was given the main prize in 2012, and collectors and gallerists will beat a path to these artists’ studios. And the founder of the award, as much as its laureate, will feel like a winner.