The biggest art prize in the world is launched tomorrow, with a shortlist of potential winners that is almost certain to cause controversy. Called simply the Gulbenkian, the £175,000 award is worth more than four times the Turner Prize and outstrips the US-based ArtPrize, previously the world's largest, at $250,000 (£153,000).
Announcing the award exclusively in this newspaper, Andrew Barnett, the UK director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, said: "We want to help artists develop the gleams in their eyes." But the award is likely to excite much comment. Entrants shortlisted for the first award include a bonfire night spectacle involving street drinkers; a surreal world in which humans and animals change place; young Somalis in a poetry drama on Cardiff's dockside; an interactive virtual version of a Brecht/Weill opera; Shetlanders tinkering with cars; and a London indoor and outdoor mass cycle ride.
The winner will have two years to develop their idea before it is presented in 2013. And while the chosen works are unusual, the aim of the prize is to produce high-quality arts projects that involve the public, its organisers say. They cite La Machine, the giant robotic spider that crawled all over the hearts and imaginations of Liverpool in its year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, or One and Other, Antony Gormley's cross between sculpture and theatre on Trafalgar Square's empty Fourth Plinth in the summer of 2009.
Set up in 1956 by the energy baron Calouste Gulbenkian, the foundation promotes culture and education throughout Europe, so the six shortlisted works also need to have a social purpose and pioneer new ways of reaching the disadvantaged. "It sounds very worthy," said Simon Mellor, general director of the Manchester International Festival and one of the award's advisers, "but what we're looking for is something spectacular that will have real resonance".
Perhaps the most controversial is Duckie, an anarchic theatre group based in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, just over the Thames from Tate Britain, which wants to work with Graham House, a "wet hostel" for street drinkers, to create a choreographed performance around a Guy Fawkes bonfire. The work would address addiction, homelessness and desperation in front of an audience of around 4,000.
The Truro company Wildworks – in the news at Easter when it worked with National Theatre Wales to present The Passion in Port Talbot, South Wales, with the actor Michael Sheen – is proposing what its artistic director Bill Mitchell calls "a surreal mythic world" bringing together rural and urban communities in Cornwall and London.
NTW is also shortlisted, with a proposal aimed at giving the young poets and playmakers of the long-established Somalis of Butetown, once Cardiff's Tiger Bay, their moment.
National Theatre Scotland's entry reflects on the irony of Shetland once being rich in air-poisoning oil. Graham Vick and his Birmingham Opera want to turn Brecht and Weill's political satire Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny into a multi-participant online production examining the survival of the soul in a virtual world. The Young Vic will fill its neighbourhood, near Waterloo station in London, with enthusiastic cyclists recreating the Chinese film Beijing Bicycle.
The prize's first recipient will be announced early in June. "We want to take an approach that's innovative," Mr Barnett said, "moving beyond the mere transaction of writing a cheque and working with them from the beginning to explore different practices."
He added that he hoped the Gulbenkian will inform the Arts Council, as it rethinks how it will spend the extra £50m a year expected via the Government's rejigging of the National Lottery in favour of good causes.