Winning means freedom from day jobs

Aboriginal Art Directory | 20.07.10

Ian Potter Museum of Art director Chris McAuliffe, one of the judges of the sport-themed $100,000 Basil Sellers Art Prize, being announced in early August, guesses that Australia has more art prizes per capita then anywhere else in the world. He looks to the past for a possible explanation: in the 19th century, artists competed in awards where the prize was a trip to Europe, based on the idea that an Australian artist needed exposure to the Old Masters. ''You might say that back in the colonial era the idea that individual artists could be plucked from obscurity and put on the path to fame took root,'' McAuliffe says. ''But I think that the most recent factor is that a lot of corporate sponsors would see an art prize as a very simple and direct path towards cultural patronage.''

''Awards are definitely an integral part of the art world's ecology; always have been, always will be,'' says Michael Fitzgerald, managing editor of Art & Australia, which runs its own acquisitive award that also promotes emerging artists on the magazine cover. ''They are important promotional tools for galleries and their artists and it is perhaps best to see them in this light rather than in terms of the more pathological or competitive aspects of prize-giving, which can otherwise be anathema to the art world.''

But it is this competitive aspect that grabs headlines and is meant to catapult young artists' careers into orbit. Dr Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios recently convened a discussion on art's relationship to money that features a keynote address from controversial Archibald and Wynne winner Sam Leach. According to her research, while prizes provide useful promotional tools for art galleries, award wins make no difference to resale values in the long-haul secondary market. ''The point is,'' she says, ''without a resale market, which is predominantly the auction market, buying an artist's work is not an attractive option for a collector.''

Prizes can be problematic, says Fitzgerald. ''They might catapult, confirm or consolidate an artist's career, but in some extreme cases can be a thorn in an artist's side.''


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