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Why the RIBA has trouble finding a sponsor for the Stirling Prize

No proper television programme, no dinner, no prize money - it’s the RIBA’s mindset that’s responsible, writes Paul Finch

For the best part of a decade, the RIBA Stirling Prize included the following phrase in press releases and other formal references: ‘In association with The Architects’ Journal.’ That was because the AJ was the major sponsor of not just the Stirling Prize, but of the institute’s awards programme as a whole. At a rough estimate, we provided between £500,000 and £600,000 during that period.
The AJ became involved because successive sponsors of the prize, first The Sunday Times and then the RIBA Journal (at the time under commercial ownership) had pulled out. Neither had exactly rocked the sponsorship boat, paying £20,000 per annum - that is to say, the prize money.

By contrast, the AJ guaranteed a minimum payment of £50,000, with more to come on the basis of additional sponsorships we might help to bring in, ticket sales, and so on. Life as a sponsor was a bit tough to begin with, mainly because the RIBA seemed to have little experience of what sponsors would expect and how to treat them. I recall one surreal episode when the sponsor tables at one of the dinners were all placed at the back of the room. It had to be sorted out.

Eventually things went pretty well, mainly due to the commitment not just of the AJ’s editors, but of the institute’s head of awards, the redoubtable Tony Chapman. Then came the economic collapse in 2008. Along with changing economic circumstances for publishers generally, it became impossible to guarantee £50,000 every year. On the other hand, nor did we want to walk away from an established relationship which was working well for both parties - so well that the AJ and The Architectural Review donated their photographic collection to the institute, comprising more than 300,000 images. We were warmly thanked by then librarian, Irena Murray, who knew how to treat people.

The compromise reached was a guaranteed minimum of £20,000. We specifically did not ask for this to be described as the Stirling Prize money, firstly because we had always said the RIBA should use the funding as it saw fit in relation to the awards programme as a whole; and secondly because it would have prevented some additional sponsorship from someone who particularly wanted to be associated with the prize itself. Marco Goldschmied generously came forward in this way.

A couple of years ago I was deeply shocked to hear that the institute had contacted the relevant AJ commercial people to renegotiate our agreement. The institute was happy for the AJ to remain as what it quaintly describes as its ‘trade media partner’ (is architecture a trade?), but disliked that phrase ‘in association with The Architects’ Journal ’ and to lose it, they would terminate the £20,000 sponsorship agreement. The RIBA wanted complete control over its own awards, unsullied by commercial connection.

Not surprisingly, the AJ’s then publisher didn’t have to think too long about the response. Keep the media partnership and save money. It would have been perverse to do anything else.

But what on earth was the RIBA thinking? It was insulting to those who had worked hard to build this relationship. It also implied that the institute and its awards programme didn’t need the money: an absurdity. There is an apparent cultural inability on the part of Portland Place to cultivate, nurture and strengthen relationships with sponsors. They come and go in short order - apart from the Lead Sheet Association.

So when contemplating this year’s event - no proper television programme, no dinner, no prize money - think about the mindset responsible and whether it is best suited to promoting the cause of British architecture.

Response from Gill Webber, executive director communication & outreach, RIBA

The RIBA Stirling Prize, now in its 18th year is going from strength to strength. The prize has two key aims: to reward excellence and to engage the public with architecture. This year the RIBA negotiated a valuable partnership with BBC News Online (which has a weekly reach of around 19 million); the prize was featured regularly through 7 days of BBC TV and online news programming around the world, including a 30 minute special programme and short films featuring each of the buildings.

The prize-giving event itself was broadcast a number of times live on the night by the BBC, both on the News Channel and on the News at Ten. Students from the University of Limerick and nuns from Bishop Edward King Chapel along with other clients, were the focus for TV and radio interviews, providing testimonies, explaining what the buildings do for them and how it lifts their spirits.

Over 65,000 members of the public expressed their own view about which building should win through a BBC News Online poll. The AJ did an excellent job of telling the Stirling Prize story to our important professional audiences. This year we have seen the highest amount of public engagement in the RIBA Stirling Prize and architecture has been truly at the top of the news agenda; we look forward to building on this success in 2014.

 

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