No contest

It's worth a cool £100,000 - but will the Gulbenkian Prize ever have the same clout as the high-profile Turner and Man Booker prizes? Matt Barnard reports
Matt
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Back in 1997 Chris Smith, the then culture secretary, suggested that museum awards should have a much higher profile. 'I would like to see prizes for museums on a footing with the Booker and Turner prizes,' were his exact words.

This month, applications are being invited for the third Gulbenkian Prize, a merger of several different museum prizes which was set up in 2001 in the hope that a single prize could pack the same punch as the Turner and Man Booker prizes. But, having had two years to prove itself, has it succeeded? The evidence indicates that the answer is 'not yet'.

'In my view it is not at the same banqueting table as the Turner and Man Booker,' says Maev Kennedy, the arts and heritage correspondent at The Guardian newspaper.

'From the inside I know that there are things on the cultural agenda that the news desk will say "what are we going to do on this", and others you have to argue to get covered. The Gulbenkian Prize did quite well with coverage, but it was argued into the paper.'

This year the prize grabbed a ten-minute slot on the BBC's News at Ten, as well as getting coverage in national and local media. Nevertheless it fell well short of the in depth and international attention that both the Man Booker and Turner prizes get. And, in terms of impact on the winners, the Gulbenkian is in a different league.

The Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate Modern will get between 70,000 and 100,000 visitors over a two or three-month period, and past winners, including Damien Hirst, and even those who made it to the shortlist, such as Tracey Emin, have become household names.

Similarly, the immediate impact of the Man Booker is clear. This year's winner, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre and published by Faber and Faber, sold 13,000 copies the month before it won and 130,000 the month after it got the prize. Even by Man Booker standards this is dramatic, but it illustrates what the prize can do.

The contrast, in terms of visitor figures, with the two museums that have won the Gulbenkian Prize couldn't be greater. Peter Armstrong, the director of the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham, which got the prize in its first year, said winning had no impact at all on its visitor numbers. The figures for this year's winner, The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which won for its landscaping project Landform, are more ambiguous.

The museum's press office says that anecdotally there is evidence that more people are visiting the museum because it won the prize, but its overall figures show a drop since winning. The museum was awarded the prize at the beginning of May. In April it got 17,408 visitors and in May it got 16,502, and this figure dropped further to 14,274 in June.

However, the Gulbenkian Prize has had more success in terms of the broader impact on the museums involved. Armstrong says winning opened all sorts of doors. He says that the museum has been contacted by other museums interested in consultation, its staff have been invited to speak at conferences and he has talked to Tessa Jowell, the current culture secretary, about how the arts can help young offenders.

'We thought the good thing would be getting the £100,000, but the credibility was more important,' Armstrong says. '[All these things] would never have happened to us as a small independent museum before; we would have been ignored.'

Other museums short-listed this year have reported similar effects. Lindsay Allason Jones, the director of archaeological museums at Newcastle University, which was short listed for its Reticulum project, said that strangers came up to the project's curator in the supermarket and even in the vet's and wished her good luck.

And that the museum's two biggest funders, the Arts and Humanities Research Board and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), were 'thrilled', and sent emails congratulating the museum on being nominated and commiserating when it didn't win.

Similarly, Steve Miller, the director of Norton Priory Museum, feels the prize was a real boost to its successful HLF application for £231,000, and that it generated lots of media coverage, as well as boosting staff morale.

The museum's visitor figures since April are up 30 per cent on the previous year, though this has been aided by a BBC2 documentary and a royal visit, both unconnected with the prize. Nevertheless, Miller is full of praise for the award. 'I can't think of any other initiative that has had as energising and effective results,' he says.

Penny Cobham, the chairwoman of the trustees of the Gulbenkian Prize, says that she is pleased with progress so far, especially considering there is no money for publicity.

But although she denies that they aren't necessarily getting all the best projects applying, the trust has this year put in place a semi-formal system of scouts around the country to encourage museums with good projects to apply if they haven't already done so.

She also accepts that if Pembrokeshire Museum Service's travelling Romany exhibition Varda, short-listed this year, had won, it would have been a difficult project to sell to the media. So the criteria are being changed to encourage judges to take a more holistic approach to nominated museums, more in line with the European Museum of the Year Award.

But Cobham also argues that success doesn't happen overnight. 'This is not a sprint, it is a marathon, and every prize has shown that,' she says. Given that the Turner Prize started in 1984 and the Booker in 1969, and neither were overnight successes, she has a point. Yet it is not just a question of time. Both Turner and Man Booker have had watershed moments involving both national broadcasters and controversy.

For the Turner prize, it was the partnership with Channel 4, which began in 1991, along with the emergence at the same time of the Young British Artists that catapulted the prize into the limelight.

For the Man Booker, the broadcasting of the prize on BBC2 in 1981 was important, but before that a critical moment was when John Berger won in 1972 and announced he would be donating the prize money to the Black Panthers. The question for the Gulbenkian Prize now is whether it can, or indeed wants to, attract that sort of attention. mj

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