Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Three years of Bolton’s international neo:artprize: “Why leave it to the Royal Academy or the National Portrait Gallery?”

I was recently asked to write a promotional feature about the annual neo:artprize, highlighting the artist-led ethos behind it. I visited neo:studios in Bolton, where I was given a tour and talked to neo:artprize co-founder Jason Simpson about the growth of the group and the way in which they have built up an alternative art scene in the town.
Three years of the neo:artprize

Every artist wants to get their work seen but it can be difficult for emerging artists to feel that they’re reaching out to an audience and not making art for non-existent viewers or indifferent eyes. It was the desire to showcase its members’ work to a wider audience that motivated Bolton-based studio group neo:artists to establish the neo:artprize in 2012, an acclaimed open submission competition which attracts artists from across the globe and is judged by leading figures in the art world.

“What everyone in the arts wants is exposure,” explains neo:artprize co-founder and neo:studios director Jason Simpson, a University of Bolton alumnus. “That’s what neo:artists has been about right from the very beginning. Artists want to be part of a group that is doing something, and we want to build up a reputation on the arts scene. We want to connect with other groups so that they feel confident working with us after seeing what we can do.” By inviting “the type of judges who artists want to see their work” – this year the painter Ian Davenport, the Serpentine Gallery’s Exhibitions Curator Amira Gad, South London Gallery Director Margot Heller and Helen Pheby, Senior Curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park – the neo:artprize creates opportunities for all entrants, not least increased visibility. “Even if they don’t become a finalist, an artist’s work, having been seen, is there in the judges’ psyche. Although the competition is judged blind, a judge can ask if they want to know the name of a particular artist,” explains Jason. It’s about building recognition: “If the judge sees work again in another context they’ll know they’ve seen it somewhere else before.”

Neo:artists comprises 38 artists, with a wider membership of 80, working across all media, who are based around a sociable two floors of former office space in Bolton town centre and have access to impressive shared resources such as a print room and wood workshop, in addition to ceramics, sculpture and photography facilities at the University of Bolton. Ranging from graduates from the university’s MA courses to artists with many years of exhibiting and organising experience, there is a waiting list for the studios. It’s not just about making – members also curate, exhibit in and invigilate the group’s own gallery, a surprisingly spacious former retail unit in the Market Place Shopping Centre across the road. Neo:gallery has hosted more than 200 shows over the past six years and previews attract hundreds.

In a town where many of the public think state funding for the arts represents a diversion of money from services such as hospitals, Jason takes genuine pleasure in increasing enjoyment of art among local people. “We are the contemporary art scene in Bolton,” he explains. “A large number of adults come in who have never been to an art gallery before, so there’s a lot of resistance. Young men wander in on the phone and ask us ‘what’s this?’. The most common comment is ‘my six-year-old could have done this’. But kids get the concept and they explain it to their parents. If we keep doing this we can have a massive impact on a generation in Bolton.” Jason sees the neo:artprize as ”a natural progression”.

Now in its third instalment, the prize alternates biannually with the neo:printprize, acknowledging the strength of the group’s print room. Although artists from Greater Manchester and the North West have been well-represented in previous years’ shows, including writer, artist and curator Mike Chavez-Dawson and Manchester Metropolitan University MA graduate Hannah Leighton-Boyce, there have been submissions from Germany, America and Malaysia so far this year. As well as giving artists from the region greater exposure by going beyond geographical boundaries and showing “you don’t have to be in London or Manchester to succeed”, it brings new work, artists and ideas to Bolton.

Neo:artprize also highlights the value of financial support for the arts and the necessity of improving the “affordability of being an artist”. It offers much-needed resources in the form of not just a cash prize but grants for materials, donated by local businesses, and a neo:residency prize. The winner of neo:residency accesses a twelve-week residency in Bolton, tapping into an artists’ ecology that includes not just studio space at neo:studios but a close relationship with the University, which Jason describes as a “win-win situation”. In the case of printmaker Dana Ariel, who undertook the residency in between finishing her Master’s at London’s Slade School of Art and returning to the school to start a PhD, it enabled her to focus on creating work outside the pressures of an academic course and to explore a new direction in her practice. As well as becoming immersed in a new place – Jason taught Dana, who is from Israel, “how to drink real ale” – Dana took the opportunity to network and show her work in the North West, as well as gaining experience of delivering masterclasses and artists’ talks with local students, blossoming into an ongoing relationship with the town.

Neo:artists have emerged from the shadow of long-established studio groups in nearby Manchester and are now working towards funding their own building and contemporary art centre. In the meantime, the neo:artprize continues to go from strength to strength. Crucially, it continues to be artist-led. “Why should prizes always be run by organisations?”, asks Jason. “Why leave it to the Royal Academy or the National Portrait Gallery?” As neo:artists have shown over the past three years, “If it’s an artists’ prize it should be artists running it.”

The deadline for submissions to the neo:artprize is Monday 18 May 2015. For application criteria, terms and conditions and to upload work online, visit www.neoartists.co.uk/artprize2015.asp

Finalists will be exhibited at neo:gallery from 27 August-1 November 2015.

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