Artists are invited to apply for the awards after being nominated. The nominators change each year and are either artists themselves or recognised professionals in related fields, such as museum and gallery directors, curators, journalists, teachers, musicians and programmers. In 2019 there were 16 nominators for visual artists and 13 for composers.

Each nominator puts forward the names of up to five artists who live and practice in the UK. Each artist is then informed of their nomination and asked if they would like to submit an application that includes biographical details, examples of their work, evidence of financial need and a statement explaining how an award would help them. Artists who do not live and work in the UK, or are in full-time undergraduate or funded postgraduate education, are not eligible to apply.

The identities of each year’s nominators and nominees remain confidential throughout the process. Artists are not told who nominated them, unless they are selected to receive an award.

Applications are considered by two panels of judges, one for each art form. The visual arts panel is chaired by Jane Hamlyn, Chair of Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and the composers panel is chaired by pianist and festival curator Joanna MacGregor CBE. Panel members change every year, and include at least one artist (often a previous recipient) as well as respected individuals from similar professional backgrounds to the nominators. Judges are not told if artists have been nominated previously.

The visual arts judging panel meets over two days to review all applications and select five recipients. The composers panel select a shortlist in their own time and then come together for a day to choose the five recipients.

The names of the nominated or shortlisted artists are not made public. This reflects the Foundation’s wish to reduce as much as possible the sense of disappointment for those who are not shortlisted or selected. Applicants are informed of the outcome of the judging in the autumn, and the recipients of the awards are announced at a reception in November each year.