Triptychs, football and Holofernes: In conversation with Richard Roberts

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Today, the Student Art Prize is a fixture in the Durham student’s calendar, but how did it all begin? For the founder and main sponsor for the Art Prize, Richard Roberts, it was his simple belief “there is more to life than football”. Feeling creative opportunities at the institution were being stifled by an overriding “obsession with sport”, in 2019 he helped to launch the competition for Durham students. His ultimate aim was to allow art to flourish at a university which offers no Fine Arts degree and, just last year, controversially axed its History of Art programme. Two years on, the prize has already started making waves, securing the appointment of a Victoria and Albert Museum trustee as a judge, as well as attracting some remarkable submissions which have subsequently featured in museums across the country. Richard puts it simply: “the standard is incredible”.

Feeling creative opportunites at the institution were being stifled by an overriding “obsession with sport”

This year’s submissions look set to continue the trend of innovation within the prize. With discussions hanging in the air about categories for street art and graffiti in the future: now is unquestionably the time to experiment with form, whether it be with sculpture, a triptych, or a theatrical experience. The specifics don’t matter to Richard, he just hopes participants “will be really creative and imaginative” and make sure their works are memorable. His personal favourite ever submission, Aelfred Hillman’s ‘Self-Portrait as Judith and Holofernes’ – a radical, challenging and almost narcotically beautiful pastiche of age-old mythology and modern social commentary – absolutely showcases this taste for the unexpected. The message to would-be contributors seems simple enough: dare to be different.

This year’s theme ‘Hidden’ could hardly be more definitive of Durham University. As stories continue to break unveiling the difficult lives of those students who feel neglected by the university, this year’s theme surely has the scope for a myriad of interpretations and offers the opportunity to make this year’s prize more personal than ever. From lower income students to members of the LGBTQ+ community, this year’s competition looks set to be a celebration of everything that Durham needs shining a light on. This is all hugely exciting for Richard, who goes into the judging with “a real sense of not knowing” what he’ll find – it certainly seems like an enviable job. As far as he is concerned students could interpret the brief very differently, for instance to explore a hidden part of the city instead of their own personalities. It’s this diversity of perspective which is quintessential to art itself, and has made the prize such a success.

The message to would-be contributors seems simple enough: dare to be different

So what does the future of the Art Prize look like? This year already marks the introduction of a photography-only category accompanied by its own top three winners and prize money matching that of the normal competition. In his long-term plans, as well as introducing more new categories to appreciate different types of art forms, Richard has national ambitions, envisaging a competition between the Russell Group universities. Indeed, if art is indeed an “antidote” to the troubles around us, a chance to escape into a creative extension of ourselves, why not expand beyond Durham?

Yet with the City of Culture bid coming up in 2025, art also has a huge role to play locally, and Richard hopes “in time we (the university) get a significant display space” to rival the towering galleries in other large cities be they Oxford, Cambridge, London or Manchester. There can be no question Durham has the art and spaces at its disposal, so winning will be about “using what we’ve got, but using it better”. The prize in this respect is emblematic of a greater driving force within the university, to cement art at the centre of Durham’s cultural scene after the explosive impact of Lumiere. In this respect, going forward it will have to focus on recognising the individual inputs, the collecting, the painting, and the photographing which are “opening up” this city’s closed communities and bringing about “revelation” for creative students more than ever before.

Image credit: Jade Westerman

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