The plague of art prizes in Australia
I am unfamiliar with any other country in the world where art prizes are so numerous and play such a public role in the art scene as in Australia. Is there any other country where there is a portrait prize that stops a nation?
In Britain, the Turner Prize with a purse of £40,000, has been hyped to the rafters, but apart from a bit of ridicule from the tabloids, it is only big news or the subject of derision in art circles.
On my count, there are somewhere about 548 art prizes in Australia, although the listing on the website seems to include a couple that are somewhat moribund and a few that have been suspended, but still over 500 art prizes must be a bit of an overkill.
Obviously not all art prizes have been created equal and a win in the Archibald will bring more money and clout for the artist than the Hahndorf Academy Adelaide Hills Art Prize, but Australia’s appetite for art prizes appears insatiable.
Despite the plethora of art prizes, as a phenomenon in Australian art it has been inadequately studied with the only, almost-comprehensive study of which I am aware, by Dr Thea Exley in 2000, titled Patronage by proxy: art competitions in Australia during the twentieth century.
Otherwise there is no shortage of references to art prizes, annual catalogues devoted to the prizes or individual publications devoted to the history of specific prizes such as the Archibald, Blake or the Dobell.
What makes for a successful art prize competition? A generous purse may make it more attractive, but it is not a deal clincher.
The Archibald has a winner’s purse of $100,000, while the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize is $150,000, but winning the latter hardly rates a mention, a blip on an artist’s c.v., while the Archibald remains a career highlight and in many instances has launched or relaunched an artist’s career.
The calibre of the judges also seems to make little impact, for the Archibald it is the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, many of whom are there, quite appropriately, because they are people of influence or have particularly deep pockets, rather than any knowledge of art.
The Moran Prize, particularly in recent years, has had highly qualified judges, but still it remains the neglected portrait prize. Controversy is great for the profile of an art prize, but someone really has to care about it in the first place for decisions to be controversial, otherwise it becomes a parochial in-house skirmish.
Negative criticism is a must for art prizes to flourish, but this has really very little impact – the crowds still come and the art critics are ignored.
This year’s Archibald, with its 43 finalists, is as disappointing and a non-event as most of the Archibald shows of the previous few years.
The winning entry, Mitch Cairns’ portrait of his partner Agatha Gothe-Snape, is an eye-catching, highly decorative pastiche of a Matisse-inspired formula. It is neither particularly interesting nor particularly adventurous, but Cairns, a local Sydney artist in his early 30s, has become a regular in the Archibald and had earlier secured the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. It is a clever, decorative painting that will be viewed as sufficiently progressive to keep the critics at bay, yet sufficiently safely anchored in early modernism not to antagonise the establishment.
In this year’s selection, Tony Albert is one of the few conceptually adventurous portraits, while Nicholas Harding, Marcus Wills and Noel Thurgate have painted three of the most accomplished portraits.
Madeleine Winch, Prudence Flint and Kate Beynon, are all artists who have their own peculiar and idiosyncratic visual language and have in each instance slightly extended their lexicon.
A newcomer to the art prize circuit is the Hadley’s Art Prize in Hobart, which commenced in July 2017 and, as far as I am concerned, has been flying under the radar despite its exceptionally generous prize purse of $100,000. It has a somewhat clunky theme: ‘History and place: For the best portrayal of the Australian landscape which acknowledges the past’.
Named after the vintage Hadley’s Hotel in Hobart, the prize is yet to receive traction in the art world and although the 41 finalists produce a credible field, it is not of the calibre that would reflect the value of the prize. The winner is Peter Mungkuri from South Australia with his Ngura Wiru, which is a good, sprawling ink drawing of his home country. For me, the main highlights of this prize include Karen Casey’s golden glowing image of the land as history and memory in Mapping Time, a superb Ray Arnold etching diptych, Elsewhere world/Prospect and refuge II, Susanna Castledon’s Rottnest Sunrise with its striking play of coloured gesso on paper, Sue Lovegrove’s … and all hands danced together and a typically quirky Guan Wei, Reflection 5, where personal histories combine with general histories and observations.
Down the road in Hobart, at the Colville Gallery in Salamanca Place, is the Lloyd Rees Art Prize with a much more modest purse of $20,000, but which arguably has attracted a stronger field than the Hadley Prize. This year the winning entry is a lovely small glowing oil painting by Philip Wolfhagen, Transitory Light. With at least half a dozen art prizes in Tasmania, the island is well served with these sporting fixtures of the art world.
With such a crowded field of hundreds of art prizes and competitions in Australia and with the appetite for them not diminishing, I cannot but wonder why they should remain so popular with patrons, artists and the public.
The last two categories are easiest to explain – artists are desperate for money and recognition, while the public are drawn to a game where they can argue with the judges’ pronouncements and generally own the whole art process.
The more perplexing is the role of the patron. Certainly, in the 1960s and 1970s when the whole art prize phenomenon exploded in its popularity, patrons quite often struck a profitable deal through the art prizes with acquisitive awards with modest purses – the organisers would capitalise on the publicity and would pocket the work for what was often a bargain basement price.
Today, frequently the prizes are substantial and, even if they are acquisitive, as in the case of the Hadley Prize, their value easily eclipses the price of the work. With such a proliferation of landscape art prizes, publicity is limited.
Outside the art community, who would know about the Fleurieu Art Prize for Landscape worth $65,000, the Glover Prize for landscape painting in Hobart of $50,000, the Wynne Prize for landscape of $50,000 or the Tattersalls Landscape Art Prize worth $30,000 with its successful touring exhibition?
Is it possible that there could be smarter and more effective ways for patrons to channel patronage into the arts than to constantly organise art prizes?
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