Article: William Bowness Photography Prize 2010
Art prizes are established by organisations to gain importance and prestige. Sometimes for the winning artist the rewards can be substantial – a cash prize, an increase in price of their artworks as well as industry recognition. Well managed over an extended period they can provide considerable cache to the host art gallery.
For an audience, art prizes are a kind of sport. With the work of individual artists hung without establishing contexts - that is to say - exhibited individual pieces separate from other works by the same artist; the picking of subjective favourites and cheering them on is perhaps inevitable. Arguments and disputes over how deserving the eventual winner may be is also part of the sport of art competitions.
The third party in this game of art competitions is the judge. Usually selected for the prestige they bring – often underpaid state gallery curators with a glamorous title – there is a price for prestige - these judges are placed in rather invidious positions. Competitions have their rules that are usually designed to keep out a certain type of art in the pre-selection process rather than providing practical guidelines for the judging itself. How do you compare one artwork by one artist, conceived with a set of aesthetic and thematic frameworks with that of another artist?
As someone who has acted as judge in an art prize on a couple of occasions, I found that inevitably questions beyond the work came into determining the final winner. These questions arise after selecting out the poorly conceived or executed works and after arriving at a top two or three from which a winner must be selected.
Questions such as the following may come to mind:
· Which of the top three artists the judges are selecting the winner from has not won an art prize recently?
· What are the themes of contemporary relevance?
· Has artist x paid their dues and deserve a break?
· Is artist x hard up for money?
· Are there ideological priorities on the part of the sponsor or the host?
· If I select artist z will it really piss off my enemies?
This long preamble is an introduction to a review on the William Bowness Prize that was announced at the Monash Gallery of Art on September 23. The murmur in the room before hand from some was not to expect a winner who displays qualities of innovation or contemporary relevance given the conservative pre-disposition of judges Gael Newton (Senior Curator of Photography National Gallery of Australia), Max Pam (artist) or Gallery Director Shaune Lakin (formerly of Canberra’s War Memorial). Some in the audience were more shocked and annoyed than the judge’s choices art prizes normally evoke. The disbelief at the announcement of the winner was palpable.
The gallery Director is a nervous character and his public speaking awkward. His welcome and introductions was followed by rambling and unstructured comments from the two other judges. The best speech of the night came from a representative of hotel chain Sofitel, a sponsor. His speech made the appropriate links between his company and creative practice as well as being clear and; brief.
Quality artists who employ photography were included in the exhibition prize line-up including Marilyn Fairskye, Darren Sylvester, Jane Burton, Janina Green, Polixeni Papetrou just to name a few. Many in the audience had their pick and their favourite, including this writer. Any of the artists above and some others besides would have been worthy winners. But if one listened to the speeches carefully, editing out much extraneous material the clues of an unexpected and odd choice for a winning artist were there.
The William Bowness Prize is worth $25,000 and one would like to imagine the winning work would have developed their own language and demonstrate considerable innovation but this work by a talented but emerging artist is not there yet.
One of the judges thanked fellow judge and host Gallery Director for his direction and guidance. Gael Newton noted that the competition afforded her the rare opportunity to see the work of young and contemporary Australian artists, a startling admission from a publicly funded curator of photography for whom part of her job brief is surely staying informed about Australian photography.
The winner, a well put together but rather tame family portrait of an immigrant Sudanese family (not present at the opening) suited the polemic and modesty of a Council auspiced, suburban located art gallery. Sour grapes? Art world jealousy? Perhaps but another aspect of the sport of art prizes is the development of conspiracy theories - and one has begun to circulate.
Rumours were circulating in the art world today claiming that the winning artist, Lee Grant works for the same organisation as one of the judges. One hopes for the integrity of the award that this is not true. Art prizes especially one worth a large sum of money need not only be fairly judged but also have the appearance of being fairly and equitably judged. At the very least, there seems to be perception issue around the award in 2010 given the unexpected choice of the winning artist in this company.
Darren Sylvester –an artist of significant reputation received a somewhat patronising ‘honourable mention from the judges.
Proponents of this conspiracy theory also point out that two of the judges and the winning artists all have strong Canberra connections – a point that may have dubious validity if the city connection was Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane but Canberra is a rather small art community.
Any other stories out there?