Once was an art prize…


On Friday, shortly after noon, David Gonski, Chairman of the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), will announce this year’s Archibald Prize. For approximately a week the artist (and maybe the subject) will be subjected to the same kind of media adulation that usually surrounds reality television stars.

The Archibald has always been popular, partly because it attracts so much litigation, but also because most professional tastemakers loathe it. John Olsen (a finalist in this year’s exhibition and a former trustee) demonstrated against the prize when he was an art student. Before Edmund Capon made over the event into a marketing device, it was treated with scorn by the gallery’s professional staff and always given to the most junior curator as a learning experience. In recent years however, clever marketing by the gallery has taken this old turkey and transformed it into the main dish of a veritable festival of art marketing.

The increased popularity of the Archibald means that the AGNSW is a far bigger winner than any mere artist. They are even able to turn a profit by charging admission to the exhibition of minor art. The loser, of course, is J.F. Archibald (link here).

When the founding editor of The Bulletin left the bulk of his estate to an annual portrait prize, he had two intentions. Brain drain was a serious problem for newly federated Australia, and as many talented artists had left for Europe, his will specified that qualifying artists must be ‘resident in Australasia’.

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

But Archibald’s ambition was greater than simply bringing them home. He told his friend Lionel Lindsay that, as there was no visual record of well-known Australians, no-one would remember them after their death. A century ago Australia was a country that did not know it had a history, and did not value its culture. Schoolchildren learned of the kings and queens of England and the Wars of the Roses, but not about where they lived. The main purpose of the prize therefore was to hold a mirror to Australia’s present, and through this create a sense of a living past. Without the Archibald prize there would be no National Portrait Gallery, as it has been the largest single factor in creating a local market for painted portraits.

This year’s 852 annual Archibald entries are a multi-faceted mirror produced by assorted professional artists and amateurs, including a lively scattering of ratbags. However only thirty-six entries have been hung at the AGNSW.

A further small group of works are in the Salon Des Refuses at the National Trust, but only the thirty-six are considered for the prize. The speedy rejection of most works is encouraged by another factor known to every interior decorator or designer of exhibitions. Art looks best when surrounded by white walls. If few works are hung, the remainder will look reasonably good

This year the odds against an artist having work hung in the gallery were 23.6 to 1. Ten years ago they were 13 to 1 and a generation ago it was 5 to 1. In the 1970s, when there were maybe 300 entries, the Trustees would spend an exhausting day culling entries to approximately 50. They now spend the same time culling 852 to 36. In the first cut, when most works are eliminated, the decision is made in a matter of seconds.

There is no doubt that the trustees see all the works, but no one, let alone a committee of eleven, can make a fair aesthetic judgment under that kind of visual bombardment. Two of the trustees, Janet Laurence and Imants Tillers, are artists. Many of the other trustees collect art and also know many people within the arts community. They are, of course, no longer the cross-section of the arts community who ruled when Archibald wrote his will. In NSW, gallery trustees hold their position as a gift of the Premier. The Trustees as listed on the gallery’s website are an odd lot (link here). The only academic is Janice Reid, Vice-Chancellor of UWS, responsible for downgrading visual arts in her university. Most are part of that curious network of marketeers and powerbrokers which appear whenever opportunities arise. Some, including John Schaeffer, are well known for conspicuous consumption and spectacular failures. David Gonski is widely respected for his ability to chair difficult boards, although he chairs rather too many for comfort.

Under the pressure of time, this group have selected an exhibition where the dominant tonality is mid-range (neither dark nor light), and the most familiar faces come from the arts.

With the exception of Ben Quilty’s Beryl, there are no dark brooding pieces. In any case Beryl Beaurepaire is a Liberal feminist, so her inclusion will offend no one. Challenging works were entered (including one expressionist Kim Beazley), but they have been filtered out in the judging process. The dominant theme for this year’s selection appears to create a huge in-joke for the visual arts community, with naked bodies for light relief. James Guppy’s stylish but slight nude self-portrait, Chagrin, must have been considered next to Deborah Trusson’s oversize Naked, but sadly they are not hung together.

The final vote won’t be taken until the morning of the announcement, but I cannot help wondering if the theme of the exhibition was decided when some intelligent trustees saw Rodney Pople’s elegant Kerrie Lester – after Goya, one of two Lester portraits in the show. Lester is the perennial runner-up in the prize, so maybe her best chance of winning is as a subject. The in-joke theme continues with Bill Hay’s amusing Allan Mitelman, spelling out his name in paint. Then Ian North has a portrait of Daniel Thomas in a style that quotes Jeffrey Smart, who appears as a subject painted by Peter Churcher (son of Betty). There are so many arts figures nodding to each other that I strongly suspect Avril Thomas’ vapid portrait of Alexander Downer was only hung because his sister is a respected art dealer.

Given the huge number of entries, any number of amusing, or even profound, exhibitions could be chosen from the 852. Some of the works delivered to the AGNSW were utterly bizarre, others were interesting, and some were truly awful. Perhaps the livelier ones will end up in the Salon Des Refuses.

The AGNSW exhibition is now such a heavily doctored version of what was originally intended that the Archibald can no longer be seen as a mirror to current concerns in art and life. What could have been a popular feast of art, with many flavours jostling together like an all-you-can-eat pig-out; has been stripped, refined, diced and sliced with so much energy, that it is now a study in visual anorexia.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.