As acceptance of digital art grows, there is also an urgent need for validation of quality and the recognition of artists who explore radical ideas and achieve creative breakthroughs. This is where art prizes come in. Generic ones like the Turner Prize and the Hugo Boss Prize have in recent years recognized multidisciplinary artists, including those who use video and photography in their work. However, by design, they are not currently equipped to champion digital art. The Lumen Prize which was started 10 years back is perhaps the preeminent global art prize focused on artists who work in technology. Previous winners have included Mario Klingemann (2018) and Refik Anadol (2019), who are today among the leading new media artists. The VH award which was started in 2016 is a new-media-focused prize for Asian artists.
Why are art prizes relevant at this stage of evolution of digital art? To begin with, to enable promising new media artists to be considered as mainstream artists in their own right. According to a 2021 Art Tactic report, more than half of the most promising next generation contemporary artists have completed an MFA from a traditional art school. Compare that with the majority of emerging digital artists who come from diverse backgrounds ranging from photography, media, graphic and web design, animation, gaming, or computer programming. These artists are more likely to be self-taught and unlikely to have studied at a traditional art school. Till recently, recognition as a fine artist was not accessible to them.
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Validation through platforms like the Lumen Prize can help bridge the recognition gap for emerging artists. Digital artists can struggle in the face of individual bias when a curator is either unable to comprehend their creative process technically or critically evaluate the work. Artists often need to bridge the gap by writing about their work on their websites and blogs or explaining it through interviews or on social media platforms.
Art Prizes can also help support the process of validation by bringing in diverse and expert jury panels. Such panels help create a richer conversation around multi-faceted aspects of the genre by recognizing exemplars in subcategories like generative art and immersive, multi-sensorial experiences that are pushing the envelope of digital art.
Art Prizes are not an end in themselves. More holistic support for greater innovation in the digital realm might include project funding for winners through commissions and access to multidisciplinary experts for collaboration and technological expertise, both of which are more critical for new media artists than for traditional artists. Nye Thompson who won the 2021 Lumen Prize Gold Award was originally shortlisted in 2018 and 2019 and subsequently one of those works was acquired by the V&A. Lumen Art Projects has also since partnered with the Barbican to exhibit Nye’s video installation “Insulae” (of the Island) (2019) as part of the Sky Arts 50 program. The artists shortlisted for the fourth VH Award had an opportunity to share a virtual residency at Eyebeam, the Brooklyn-based nonprofit that provides artists with a platform to creatively experiment with technology. The Tate IK Prize is another example. In 2016 the gallery partnered with Microsoft and offered a £15,000 prize and a £90,000 project grant to the winners who partnered with AI experts and web developers and used machine learning APIs to create their autonomous virtual gallery of images reinterpreting works from the Tate’s collection. Unfortunately, sustainability of such museum initiatives has often been limited to the availability of sponsorships.
When corporations sponsor awards independently, they tend to align the awards to their business objectives. Samsung’s award in collaboration with Niio is focused on digital art that can be displayed on their LED-based wall display screens while the Autodesk Flame awards reward champions of Flame, its high-end software for editing and visual effects. The VH award, founded by Hyundai, was only open to Korean artists for the first three editions and has been expanded to other Asian artists in the fourth edition in 2021.
This gatekeeping needs to change. To achieve greater impact over time, such awards must not be held hostage only as platforms for showcasing latest technologies or as marketing tools for priority markets. They must invite diverse participation both in terms of geographies and media used for creation and display and recognize work that goes beyond what the art market wants.
As digital art prizes evolve, in addition to creating more diverse jury panels given the multidisciplinary ethos at play, they also need to involve the wider online community. Offering the winners support for exhibitions and funding for future projects would be a way to make these prizes more nurturing of relationships. It is also crucial that the prizes be backed by a well-knit consortium of collaborators such as foundations, museums, and art residencies which will prevent one-sided, corporate sponsors from skewing the mandates of the prize. In addition to artists, such awards also would do well to recognize writers and curators of digital art since they play a pivotal role in making the genre more relatable to a wider audience. Finally, in what is an exciting prospect, digital art prizes are a natural fit for democratizing member-based communities like Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), regardless whether traditional art world institutions rise to the occasion or not.