Justin Hammond Talks To Artlyst About The Catlin Art Prize, And The Bigger Picture

Justin Hammond

Justin Hammond is an independent curator, publisher, and art dealer, The Catlin Art Prize is an annual showcase for outstanding new artists in the UK, described by The Independent as the Turner Prize for recent graduates, which was devised by Hammond in 2007. The independent curator later went on to compile The Catlin Guide, a yearly book that presents a collection of recent graduate and postgraduate artists from UK art schools, which is now recognised as an essential reference for collectors of contemporary art. In 2010 Hammond published ‘An Unspoken Arrangement’ to coincide with Alex Ball’s début solo exhibition, and co-curated Mike Ballard’s controversial ‘Whose Coat is that Jacket You’re Wearing?’, held in a disused tailor’s shop during Frieze. The independent curator and publisher continues to promote emerging artists, both in the UK, and internationally.

Justin was kind enough to talk to Artlyst about how the influential prize was created, how The Catlin Guide followed suit, and how the independent curator manages to select artists from across the entire country’s art schools.

A: “How did The Catlin Art Prize come into existence?”

JH: “It’s going to be the ninth year this year! I was putting on exhibitions around Hoxton, and Broadway Market, and no one ever came, no one ever bought anything, but that was all right, because I made lots of early mistakes in private – which is a good way of doing it – and one day someone actually came in to buy something – which was such a rarity that I wouldn’t let them leave until I’d taken down all of their details – and it turned out that they worked for Catlin [As title sponsors of The Catlin Art Prize, Catlin is one of the world’s leading insurers of fine art].

We just got talking and decided that I had this idea – I suppose because I was working with new graduates straight out of school, but I wasn’t in a position to represent them, and it was such a shame as there would be this pattern that would develop in the first six months out of school: everything was going fine with the work, then slowly without that kind of support network, or infrastructure of art school, a lot of the artists just seemed to fall by the wayside. You’d bump into them a year later and enquire ‘are you still making work?’ and the reply would be something along the lines of ‘Well…. I’m working in a pub five nights a week, but I still occasionally make work…’.

So I thought that was a real shame, so the idea was to have this show a year on from graduation where it would almost be a second chance, another showcase, and during that year I’d work with them. Which has now developed into a form of mentoring, I suppose people would call it, but at the time I was simply supporting and working towards this show. Catlin agreed to support that, in the first year it was very small scale, in a very scuzzy space, behind Broadway Market – which are luxury flats now – and it went really well. Catlin put up some money for the winner of the prize, and it kind of developed from there, and got bigger, and bigger each year – and now it’s pretty much a full-time project, so that was how the prize developed really.”

A: “How do you go about attempting to choose a selection of artists from the entire country’s art graduates?”

JH: “It’s handy now because there are a lot of collectors, course tutors, other curators, and artists as well – I get lots of recommendations from those guys – I think when I first started doing it people were a little bit wary about that: ‘why should I tell you what’s good!?’ I suppose because I’m not a gallery owner people are very forthcoming in their recommendations, as it’s not like I’m trying to steal their artists from them. At first it was all on my own back, and I remember one year going to the MA show in Sheffield, then on to Manchester in the afternoon, and then up to Edinburgh for the private view – all the while trying to keep the travel costs down! – I remember coming back on the train from Edinburgh thinking that I couldn’t remember anything that I’d seen! So now I try and do one show a day and really give the show my time, especially with the proliferation of video work now – you need a day right? – so it’s pretty much full-time over the summer.”

A: “There is often a focus on London, and the London art colleges in terms of discovering new art talent, but you decided to include the whole of the UK’s art graduates?”

JH: “Yes I think that’s important. I think the artists that benefit the most from being in the book are from the smaller schools, they don’t have that initial fanfare, that initial showcase. When I go to the Royal College of Art show I recognise all the gallerists, all the curators, everyone’s there. That’s not to say that there aren’t great shows outside of London, Glasgow is always one of my favourite shows. But I think it’s really important to give a broad view of emerging talent, and there are certainly schools in the book this year that haven’t featured in the past.”

A: “How was The Catlin Guide first compiled?

JH: ” This year is the sixth year of the guide. The guide really always existed, either in my back pocket, or as scraps of paper all over my house, but people were quite interested, I suppose at the art prize, and would ask how I had come to these eight artists?, or how did you come to find these ten? So I said, well there’s this long list, and people became quite interested in that, and now I think it’s taken on its own identity. I think initially it was the kind of sister publication, almost a catalogue for the show, and now people are interested in it in its own right.

It’s actually getting a good response, it’s funny because people actually say ‘it’s great you’ve got fifty percent male and fifty percent female artists!’ and I reply ‘yes I worked really hard at that…’, in reality there’s no criteria, it’s not like ‘good there’s a really even mix’, I only notice all those things when people pick up on them afterwards. It’s not like I say to myself ‘right I must have three from the Royal College, and three from Goldsmiths’, you know it doesn’t work that way. It’s about the art.”

A: “Is choosing the right up-and-coming artist a matter of balancing your knowledge with your intuition?

JH: “There will be artists in the book that I wouldn’t necessarily buy for my own collection. But they will be there if I recognise the worth in them, and certainly if there have been strong recommendations from the course tutors, they may end up included in the book. The best thing is when you really love someone’s work and no one else has come across it before! Obviously there are artists in the book that I really like that since graduation, and over the last six months have been picked up for lots of things – Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Saatchi New Sensations, the show that Zavier [Ellis] does, Young Gods – there’s always a crossover, that’s always going to happen, but it’s a double-edged sword because in a way, as you think: ‘great I’m picking the ones that other people think are good’, but there’s also that ‘damn! I wish no one else had spotted that!’ but that doesn’t really happen with the London schools.”

A: “Because your selection is broader, have any of the graduates chosen from outside of London had major success?”

JH: “Oh yes, I always notice with New Contemporaries, they get included, and I think it’s the case this year as well. There’s an artist from Wolverhampton actually, and it’s just kind of blown his mind I think, that he was picked up for New Contemporaries, ‘and’ the book. He came down, I think it was his first time in London? he’s gone to the ICA and gone ‘wow!’.”

Read the second part of Artlyst’s interview with Justin Hammond, where the independent curator and publisher gives his top tips for the up-and-coming artists of 2015 here

The Catlin Art Prize finalists will be revealed on 3 March 2015 with the exhibition to follow on 7 May 2015

Words: Justin Hammond with Paul Black Photo: courtesy of Justin Hammond © Artlyst 2014 photo Artlyst all rights reserved


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