Winners, Losers…

Op-ed May 04, 2012 1 Comment

Guest blogger Halinka Orszulok attended the opening of the Redlands Westpac Art Prize and discovered the “Highlander rule” – there can only be one…

Last night I attended the opening of the Redlands Westpac Art Prize held at its new and brilliant venue, the National Art School Galleries. The atmosphere was vibrant and upbeat and the speeches left me feeling a warm glow for the sense of camaraderie that the art prize this year is designed to engender but a few nagging doubts left me with mixed feelings.

The truth is that with any prize there can only be one winner and no matter how carefully the judges make their selection there will always be room for speculation. This is particularly so when the winner is the highly acclaimed, highly awarded, super star of the art world, Ben Quilty, and the winning work is destined for the collection of an exclusive private school on the North Shore. You can be sure that the $20,000 prize money secured a very sound investment for the learning institution.

The speech given by the Redlands representative who worked with curator Rachel Kent on the judging addressed these concerns and whether there was a sense of equality in their selection but maintained that the work was simply the best in their opinion, plus it fulfilled the criteria of meeting the teaching aims of their arts program. The public school girl in me wanted to roll her eyes at this point.

So, was it the best work there? I can’t truthfully tell you my opinion because openings can be the worst possible time to thoughtfully view work, what with all the networking going on oiling the gears of the art world. I think Quilty’s work in this prize is definitely a strong one and I can tell you that in my experience Ben is an incredibly nice guy who is very dedicated to his chunky, fleshy practice, loyal to his supporters and supportive of fellow artists. The gist of his speech along with others given on the night was very much about the sustaining nature of the relationships artists develop with each other and the need for more support for artists. He passionately deplored the fact that sports people apparently don’t pay HECS unlike struggling art students saying that most could expect to spend at least 7 years paying off their debt – my thought was sure, if they manage to earn over the threshold.

An ever gracious, very tired Lindy Lee, who is stepping back from her role as curator, ended the speeches with a simple thank you and a heartfelt ‘long live art!’

This is what the unique structure of this prize is all about, acknowledging the life-giving connections between artists and perhaps attempting to spread the net a little wider than in a traditional prize where selection is restricted to a small panel of judges who often have dubious authority. Those artists invited to participate were asked to select an emerging artist to also take part. Yes, ultimately the final judging was done by two people, with their own interests, for the mid-career award and one individual for the emerging artists award, but there is great value in just being included in an exhibition amongst respected peers. I appreciate that rather than the arduous task for entrants and judges alike of thousands of unsolicited entries, a diverse show was curated by someone well respected within the community both as an artist and an academic. The show represents works in many media, often cross-disciplinary, and addressing a broad range of concerns and artistic interests. There did seem to be a slight leaning towards work with a post-colonial flavour but I guess it is to be expected that a curator will have their own areas of particular interest and it isn’t overwhelmingly weighted towards this type of work.

The verdict? Art prizes aren’t fair but you have to deal with any inherent inequalities as best you can. Hopefully in this case the result is a snapshot of the interconnectedness of artists and the art that they themselves find interesting. Last night it was announced that Westpac would no longer be funding the prize which I think is a great shame. I would love to see the prize, in this model, continue in future and hope that there may be someone willing to take on the cause, for the sake of the artists.

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