Behind the Scenes: Eye on the Prize

There are now more than 500 art prizes available to Australian artists. So, who are the real winners?

Words: Louise Martin-Chew

WHEN THE BRISBANE Portrait Prize was launched early in 2019, its $50,000 first prize added to the myriad awards that have spawned in Australia in recent years. They now total more than 500 and pool to an amount exceed- ing $4 million. Martin Shub – who publishes the Australian and International Art Prizes Planner – says that there are 30 to 40 prizes calling for artists every month across the country. “Art prizes work really hard to get above the background noise. Some, like WA’s Cossack Art Award, are worth $120,000! It becomes a battle of wits and promotion to keep the artists’ attention.”

So, what drives this ongoing interest in prizes? Many have their own agenda, but Shub maintains that “the real story about prizes is not that of the Archibald (the glittering tart on the block). It’s not urban prizes, but regional prizes that have real stories attached. Hard- working people create prizes that are powerful in their communities, raising money to draw the artists in, to connect visiting artists with locals.”

Evident in recent years are art prizes targeted at particular groups, including youth (like the Mosman Art Prize), gender (the Portia Geach), emerging (the Churchie), age (the Ramsay for artists under 40) and Indigenous artists (the NATSIAA). Portraiture appears to be Australia’s enduring passion and the Brisbane Portrait Prize lines up behind Australia’s best-known and longest running Archibald, but there is also The University of Queensland’s National Self Portraiture Prize, WA’s Black Swan Prize (now the Lester Prize), the Shirley Hannan, Percival and Doug Moran. There are prizes directed at different media (drawing, sculpture, photography), very current sub-themes like portrait photography, but also landscape and religious prizes. Not to mention the grants and travel scholar- ships to be had.

But are prizes actually worth it for artists, given the time, cost of entry and freight? In 2016, Shub asked artists why they chose their most recent competition, and what emerged as most compelling was the prize’s locality. Behind this, in order of preference, was prize money, exposure, then theme. “Artists may grizzle about the judges and the entry fees and how much it costs to ship their work,” says Shub. “But the positives are being a final- ist which goes on their CV – they love that.

“So do their galleries, who work hard to make sure that their artists are in the appropriate prizes. Artists are keen to sell work in a final- ist exhibition. A prize that has a reputation for selling works for good prices is very attractive to artists. They love to win the main prize but, even if they don’t, there are other benefits.”

Targeted prizes, such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards – held annually in Darwin since 1984 – has a current prize pool of $80,000, and is a strong focus for Indigenous artists. Luke Scholes, curator at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory believes that the NATSIAAs pave the way for artists to secure other opportunities: “The NATSIAA is unique in that it has such a history – and it really is the one that all the artists want to win.” Shirley MacNamara won the Wanduk Marika 3D award in 2017. She encourages artists to keep trying if they don’t get in the first time: “Telstra NATSIAA was one of the biggest highlights of my career”.

Perceived favouritism may be raised as a problem in the prize game. But according to Shub, where resources are available most awards are judged blind, with an initial selection most often undertaken online and final selection similarly made without attribution of works to their makers. Shub recalls that when he began, most prizes were judged from the work itself, but resources may not exist, and digital preselection has now become a practical solution. “Smaller prizes can barely get staff together to man the canteen,” he says. “They do their best.”

Prizes that offer travel or grants for specific projects remain important when it comes to developing talent. The Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarships in South Australia, for example, provide an entry to international opportunities. It is unusually generous – in 2020 Samstag Scholars will be awarded costs for 12 months overseas, payment of fees for institutional study, a tax-exempt stipend of US $50,000, return airfares and medical insurance. Samstag Museum of Art director Erica Green, who administers the scholarships, says that “the way the scholarships are structured was principally determined by Gordon Samstag in his will. What has been so successful about the scholarships is that they allow Australian artists to go overseas and connect with an institution. This is very beneficial as the scholars become part of that institutional culture and develop enduring professional networks.”

Shub suggests that, in his experience, “while urban prizes get a lot of attention, the most important aspect of prizes in Australia are regional prizes. They are held in many remote and otherwise isolated regional areas – Wollongong, Townsville, Albany. Titles attract attention: the Naked and Nude in Taree, the Pro Hart Outback Prize in Broken Hill, the Waltzing Matilda in Winton. These, and so many others, draw their communities together and offer an opportunity for local people to mix with artists. Places create a vibe around the prize, people sponsor and nurture art; these are the stories to be told.”

Prizes, it would seem, are here to stay – given their ability to focus art activity around a theme, a region and to deliver a significant event. The multiplicity of opportunities they deliver to artists and collectors – in their variety and resources – offers something for (almost) everyone.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 89, JUL – SEP 2019. 

Image: Simon Terrill, Swarm (detail), 2005. C-type print, 180 x 230cm. Samstag Scholarship winner, 2007. University of South Australia Art Collection. COURTESY: THE ARTIST AND SAMSTAG MUSEUM OF ART, ADELAIDE.


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