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7 December 2010

Eyewitness Tate

Another view of the protests at last night's Turner Prize ceremony, where Susan Philipz took the awa

By Lucian Robinson

Laurie Penny has already reported on the protests by art students at last night’s Turner Prize ceremony. Here, arts writer Lucian Robinson gives his account of events.

Having passed the boarded up windows of an otherwise pristine Millbank before arriving at Tate Britain and wondered whether any glass would still be left on the pavement from November’s student marches, protest seemed to be already a thing of the past as I approached the gallery. But as I did so it became clear that something out of the ordinary was going on at Tate Britain for the 2010 Turner Prize, Britain’s leading award for modern art.

Guests were directed by Tate staff from the Millbank entrance for Tate Britain, to the less prominent Atterbury Street side entrance. This was somewhat surprising, particularly as the invitation had specifically stated that we should enter the gallery via the Millbank portico.

As they neared the Atterbury street entrance they were greeted by a dozen protesters, wearing badges proclaiming “Arts Against Cuts”, who handed them orange flyers that said, “The Turner Prize needs art schools” and “Education should be free for all, not a product for purchase.”

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After this, those invited to the ceremony were ushered through to the main building and directed to the Duveen galleries on the top floor of the Tate. The art establishment was there in force; Alan Yentob, Anthony Gormley, and Grayson Perry were all present. But what really caught people’s attention was the noise booming from behind a temporarily erected barrier, some 15 meters away, in the Duveen galleries, on the other side of which police and roughly 200 protesters were clearly visible. Their main chant was “free education for all”.

At 7:30pm, the time for the announcement of the winner came. A short introductory talk was given by Channel 4’s Krishna Guru-Murphy and then Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate Modern, took to the podium. The sound, however, from the protest was deafening and he could hardly be heard by the invited audience.

Serota, acknowledged the protest (which, frankly, would have been hard to ignore) and spoke briefly about the need to preserve public funding for the arts, proclaiming that “Art should continue to be accessible to all no matter where you live or indeed whatever your wealth”, yet somehow the surrounding landscape of bellinis, pristine reserved tables, uniformed waiting staff and absurdly perfect canapés, seemed to jar with this attempt to build a bridge of solidarity with the protesting students. This, and the fact that they couldn’t hear him anyway.

Serota subsequently welcomed Miuccia Prada, the owner of the eponymous Italian fashion house, onto the podium, who then announced the winner of the prize (though, truthfully, this was once again barely audibly against the din of protest) to be Susan Philipsz, the Glasgow-born, Berlin-based sound artist whose recent weekend song cycle of madrigals in the City of London attracted much critical interest.

Philipsz then gave an explicit statement of support for the protesters, commenting in an interview for Channel 4 that: “I don’t think we should cut grants, everyone has a right to an education … and of course I support what they (the protesters) are fighting for.”

Immediately after Philipsz gave her acceptance speech in the Duveen galleries, outside Tate Britain one of the other short-listed nominees for the Prize, Anjalika Sagar, half of the art duo, The Otolith Group, read a pre-prepared statement of support for the protests to about thirty to forty students gathered together outside the gallery:

We’d like to state our admiration and our support for the brave, bold and brilliant students and school children from the universities and state schools, privates schools and academies of this country; from Glasgow, Brighton, Leeds, Coventry, Sheffield, Cardiff, who are fighting back against the cuts to our education system. The students and school children of this country are an inspiration to us, in terms of … how we think about what we do as artists. This is the winter of our discontent, and we will see you on the streets on Thursday.

One of the protesters, a fine art student at Chelsea College of Art and Design, Patrick Nicholson, 22, estimated that there were some “200 to 250 people” inside Tate Britain protesting. He described how lecturers, from Goldsmiths College, Chelsea and the Slade School of Fine Art gave talks on how to “decapitalise the art system” to a group of students who had “assembled at 5pm”.

Another protester and student occupier of the Slade School of Fine Art, Margarita Anthanasiou, also aged 22, discussed the aims of the movement: “We want to raise awareness of the fact that there is going to be a 100 per cent cut for the arts and humanities, and to protest against this complete disregard for that part of education. We feel that essentially the government is stating that it (the arts) is unimportant for society, its secondary and therefore needs to be cut, which is mistaken. “

When asked whether the protests of the group “Arts Against Cuts” and the Slade occupation would continue until Thursday’s parliamentary vote, Anthanasiou, without pause, replied: “We plan to continue occupying and protesting until the bitter end.”