Alan Yentob: Without art we’d be a lesser nation

The Walker’s John Moores Painting Prize has made Britain’s arts scene bolder, judge Alan Yentob tells Laura Davis

A BOY staring into his reflection in the rippling water pouring over a frozen pond. A hamster cage sitting unoccupied. Rows upon rows of different shaped drawer handles. A naked man lifting himself out of an LA swimming pool. A verdant landscape topped with marshmallow clouds.

In any other exhibition, this collection of paintings would look schizophrenic. It is not just their subjects that vary but their styles (figurative, abstract, Impressionistic, textual, photorealistic and more) and their materials (everything from oil paint to stainless steel).

It is only when displayed in The Walker’s John Moores Painting Prize permanent gallery that their grouping makes sense.

Here hang many of the winners, and some shortlisted works, from the biennial competition’s 55-year history.

The tastes, politics and tempers of around 100 judges have determined whether a picture of a mutated diary logo is more pleasing than a painting of an artist’s lunch.

It’s a tough job but also an honour, insists Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC and one of this year’s judging panel.

“I’m delighted to be part of it,” he says.

“I’m a big fan of the Walker Art Gallery, I’m a fan of the Moores competition and I love Liverpool, especially Liverpool of late, the way it’s regenerated itself particularly in relation to culture.

“If you look at the names who’ve been honoured it’s an incredible list – Patrick Heron, John Hoyland, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Euan Uglow and more recently Peter Doig, who I think is an exceptional painter.

“To cap it all is the honour to (1961 junior prize winner) Peter Blake in making him the patron.”

Yentob will be joined by three Turner Prize-shortlisted artists Fiona Banner (2002), Angela de la Cruz (2010) and George Shaw (2011), as well as Iwona Blazwick, director of London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery.

This summer they will have to view every single one of the 3,100 entries as a slideshow before an intense three days studying the short-listed hundreds in the flesh.

The process – and the result – depends entirely on the personalities of the judges, who over the years have laughed, fought, exclaimed in joy and shaken their heads in dismay but have always ultimately come to a decision.

Yentob describes himself as “open-minded” when it comes to appreciating art.

“I’m looking for something that takes me by surprise,” he says.

“I’m looking for individuality. I’m looking for people who are bold in what they do and who are able to go on their own journey and take us with them somewhere new, give us new insights, look at the world a different way.”

These are all things he looks for when buying art, including a work he owns by fellow judge Fiona Banner. However, he wouldn’t go so far as calling the pieces a “collection”, he adds.

“I would say I’m more an enthusiast than I am someone who’s got a collection to rival Frank Cohen or Charles Saatchi,” he explains.

“I’m particularly interested in British art and I like to be surrounded by art wherever I am – in public spaces or in private ones.”

Art has been his life since university, adds Yentob, who joined the BBC as a general trainee in 1968 before gaining his first job, in the World Service.

After two years as a producer/director with arts-based documentary series Omnibus, he created arts programme Arena in 1978, becoming the network’s head of music and arts in 1985 and controller of BBC2 in 1988.

He has held the role of creative director since 2004, since which his contribution has included the well-received Imagine strand of films on arts subjects.

Yentob was also involved in bringing Tracey Emin’s work Roman Standard to Liverpool. A bronze sparrow-sized bird sitting on a pole, it was commissioned by the BBC in 2005 and is displayed next to the oratory outside Liverpool Cathedral.

Incidentally, Emin was a John Moores Painting Prize judge alongside Sir Peter Blake in 2006 when the winner was Martin Greenland’s Before Vermeer’s Clouds.

In his programming, Yentob has strived to blur the boundaries between what could be labelled high and low brow, and demonstrate how the arts are relevant to everyone no matter what their background.

“Bob Dylan versus Mozart – those sort of arguments are pointless,” he says.

“It’s really to do with whether things are good. High and low – or popular – culture co-exists but the division between them is contrived.

“You can see things move from supposedly high culture to popular culture if you’re lucky. The Mona Lisa fits in both camps.”

The arts are a vital part of everyday life, even in such austere times as those we are suffering today, he adds.

“I think that the last 10 years, partly as an effect of the Lottery, we’ve been able to invest in infrastructure and places like Newcastle and Liverpool have really benefitted, but now we need to keep the creative spirit alive,” he says.

“It’s not just about bricks and mortar. It’s about saying that even in difficult economic times the arts are critical. They are life-enhancing. The great cities of Britain, and some of them the great cities of Europe, have an important role to play.”

And so does the £25,000 John Moores Painting Prize, which was created by Littlewoods founder Sir John Moores in 1957 and continues to this day thanks to National Museums Liverpool and funding from the late businessman’s family.

“In some ways Britain was quite late in celebrating modern British art,” says Yentob. “In its own way the Moores Prize was very influential in making Britain less narrow-minded about the arts and bolder about acknowledging the work of artists.

“Even when these prizes are controversial it means people are talking about them. It’s about people thinking they have a significant role in the culture and about reminding them that we would be a lesser nation without our commitment to the arts.”

This year’s winner will be announced in September at the opening of The Walker’s exhibition of around 50 selected paintings. In the meantime, there is the permanent John Moores Painting Prize gallery to visit, where the 2010 winner, Keith Coventry’s Spectrum Jesus (pictured above), has just been added to the display.

Liverpool Post, 8/3/12