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Two artists have rejected their nominations for the Vincent Van Gogh Biennial Award for Contemporary Art in Europe, which is billed as “one of the world’s leading contemporary art prizes.” As organizers of the award — also known as “The Vincent Award” — announced, the Berlin-based Iranian artist Nairy Baghramian and German artist Jutta Koether decided to withdraw their names last week. The news arrives less than two months after the international jury of the Vincent Award announced the five artists shortlisted for the prize.

Koether’s decision was “a personal matter,” as a representative from Bortolami Gallery told Hyperallergic, but the award’s relationship to the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, which has organized and hosted it since 2014, seems to be contentious factor. Baghramian herself cited the museum’s involvement as the driving force behind her reason to withdraw, specifically because of a feisty legal feud between Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vō and Dutch art collector Bert Kreuk. The dispute, which involved some not-so-subtle name-calling, emerged when Kreuk claimed he never received a new artwork Vō allegedly promised him, a piece Kreuk supposedly commissioned for an exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum of works from Kreuk’s own collection. Although settled last month in favor of Vō, it is evidently still causing ripples in the art world.

“Even though I’m aware that the Vincent Award is independent from the Gemeente Museum Den Haag, where the exhibition of all [works by] nominees will take place this time, I have to question the involvement of the Museum in the law case between the artist Danh Vō and the collector De Kreuk,” Baghramian wrote in her statement to the Vincent Award’s committee and jury members, which she shared with Hyperallergic.

“Based on my insights, it seems safe to say that the museum didn’t assume a neutral stance in the private confrontation between two parties, but rather played an active role in this legal dispute and even stood against the artist who was invited to and exhibited in the museum,” she continued. “This makes the whole situation at hand seem quite precarious to me and it makes me feel weakened in my position as an artist in the context of institutional representation.

“In my understanding, the museum as an institution of the public sphere should have remained independent — or, it at least should have kept a neutral position in a private affair, if it didn’t feel capable of standing in for and protecting the artist it had invited to exhibit.”

Baghramian is likely referring to the actions of Benno Tempel and Hans Janssen — respectively, director and chief curator of the Gemeentemuseum — both of whom Vō claims made “false witness declarations” about Vō agreeing to a commissioned work. Tempel is also chairman of the international jury, which he headed for the first time in 2014. The pair, along with Kreuk’s art advisor Theo Schols, apparently testified that Kreuk would pay Vō $350,000 for the artwork and that he was later seen “jumping around for joy.”

According to artnet News, Gemeentemuseum invited David Maljkovic to take Baghramian’s place; the Croatian artist reportedly declined, although his reason remains unknown. Hyperallergic reached out to him through Annet Gelink Gallery but did not receive a response.

Danh Vo (left) and Bert Kreuk (right) (via YouTube screenshot and Artdaily)

A Gemeentemuseum representative sent Hyperallergic the award committee’s official statement, found on the Award’s website, which reads, in part:

Two years ago, the museum was unfortunately the context for a dispute between artist Danh Vo and art collector Bert Kreuk. This led to a lawsuit. In this case the museum was called to appear as witness. In court, the museum answered questions under oath of both the judge and both parties’ lawyers. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag was never party to this case. Nevertheless, Nairy Baghramian has withdrawn as a nominee for the award, citing the dispute.

The international jury, the museum and Broere Charitable Foundation were delighted with Nairy Baghramian’s nomination, and regret the fact that she has decided to withdraw. Her reason for withdrawing is particularly regrettable given the fact that The Vincent Award specifically aims to allow artists to devote themselves freely to their development as artists, and reflects the great value Europe places on art. The winner is free to spend the €50,000 in prize money as he or she sees fit.

The “Shortlist” page on the award’s website is currently inaccessible, but three nominees remain in the running: Dutch artist Manon de Boer, Portuguese duo João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva, and the Berlin-based Slavs and Tatars.

The jury seemed to be especially pleased this year with the gender ratio of the shortlist, which did originally include four women (de Boer and one-half of Slavs and Tatars — which largely chooses to remain anonymous — are now the remaining two). Tempel described this breakdown in a press release as “unusual, because women still find it difficult to enter the artistic canon and their work attracts less interest in the art market than that of their male counterparts.

“Their presence shows the special value of this prize,” he said. Established in 2000 and awarded every two years (except for 2010 and 2012), the Vincent Award has previously gone only to one female artist: Eija-Liisa Ahtila, in its inaugural year.

Gemeentemuseum may be distancing itself from the Vō v. Kreuk incident, but Baghramian is not alone in refusing to overlook its role in the case. artnet News reported that the Berlin-based Danish-Norwegian duo Elmgreen & Dragset also turned down an offer from the museum to work with it on an unspecified project.

“The museum is in the pocket of a private party,” Michael Elmgreen told artnet News. “It took me about 30 seconds to decide.

“There’s no reason for this in a heavily state-funded country like Holland,” Elmgreen said. “Especially there, it’s insane for the museum to have to depend on private parties this way. When they behave in the interest of the collector against the artist, I have no interest in working with them. It’s also very weird to have public institutions working to increase the value of a private collection.”

The artists acting against the museum are all close associates of Vō, as Kreuk noted in an email he sent to Hyperallergic.

“Very close artist-friends and gallery colleagues of Danh Vō are apparently lead to believe that my case against Danh Vō was anything else but a breach of contract by Vō,” Kreuk wrote. “It is very unfortunate that a wrong point is made at the expense of an institution, in an effort to help Vō’s tarnished reputation (which Vō suffered as a result of his default).

“This, therefore, looks very much like a deliberate and coordinated attempt to publicly shame an independent institution.”

The Gemeentemuseum representative said the institution is currently discussing with the jury and the organization committee how it will proceed with the nomination process and that it has not yet made any final decisions. A winner will be announced on November 17.

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