The Turner Prize judges tore up the rule book on Tuesday by opting to “collectively” hand the British contemporary art award to all four shortlisted candidates, after the nominees asked to be considered together at a time of political crisis in the UK.

The award normally goes to a single British artist for an outstanding exhibition shown in the past year, with the winner receiving £25,000 and the three others on the shortlist taking home £5,000 each.

But in a surprise announcement, the judges said they had unanimously decided to give the prize to the four candidates together and split the £40,000 prize money equally.

Earlier in the day, the jury had been presented with a joint letter from the nominees — Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani — asking not to be “pitted against each other, with the implication that one was more important, significant or more worthy of attention than the others”.

Referring to the tumultuous atmosphere of Brexit and the general election, the artists said: “At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity — in art as in society.”

The artists said they had never met each other before being nominated for the Turner Prize in May.

However, when they began working on an exhibition of their work at Margate’s Turner Contemporary gallery, they discovered an “underlying shared ethos” and started discussing the idea of a collective.

After a two-hour discussion on Tuesday, the judges accepted the artists’ request. “We are honoured to be supporting this bold statement of solidarity and collaboration in these divided times,” said the judges in a statement. “Their symbolic act reflects the political and social poetics that we admire and value in their work.”

The decision comes just two months after the Booker Prize judges sparked controversy by splitting the annual literary award between two shortlisted authors, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo.

Asked whether the Turner decision was likely to attract criticism, Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and chair of the judges, said the move came from the artists themselves, not as a result of a “hung jury situation”.

He added the idea of the artists’ collective, named Abu Hamdan/Cammock/Murillo/Shani, had taken shape over many months. “It’s not four winners instead of one winner,” said Mr Farquharson. “They’re winning it as a single entity.”

As well as Mr Farquharson, the other judges of the Turner Prize were Alessio Antoniolli, director of the Gasworks & Triangle Network; Elvira Dyangani Ose, director of The Showroom Gallery; Victoria Pomery, Turner Contemporary director; and Charlie Porter, a writer.

The judges’ radical decision is not the only moment of controversy for this year’s prize.

Financial support has come from BNP Paribas, Canterbury Christ Church University and Lord Browne of Madingley, among other sources.

However, the prize’s headline sponsor, Stagecoach South East, was forced to pull out in May following a furore over the record of Stagecoach co-founder and chairman Brian Souter as a campaigner against gay rights.

The episode highlighted the intense scrutiny increasingly faced by art organisations over corporate sponsorship.

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