It would seem being an artist is a thankless occupation. One spends numerous years training, followed by commitment to a life pursuing a solitary practice; what is the reward?
Well, in Canada, commercial financial return has not always been the norm, so the customary satisfactions have been recognition through exhibitions, purchases and publications, particularly via public institutions. A recent development is increasingly altering this ecology: the proliferation of awards given by foundations, corporations and private individuals. Can we even name them all? The Sobey Art Award, the Audain Prize, the Gershon Iskowitz Prize, the Joseph Plaskett Award, the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, the Scotiabank Photography Award, the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas, the Kingston Prize, the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, the Prix Louis-Philippe Hébert, the York Wilson Endowment Award and more.
Most are accompanied by a welcome cash prize; some confer rights for solo exhibitions and major publications. Others require institutions to display the candidates as an exhibition. Art museums struggling to attract audiences, and necessary funds for programming and acquisitions, are generally grateful for this infusion. Turning a group exhibition into the visual arts equivalent of an episode of The Bachelorette has distinct public relations advantages. After all, the sport of sorting dates back to Giorgio Vasari, whose 1550 book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, was intended to distinguish “the better from the good and the best from the better.” Game on.
So, there are plenty of winners, correct? Dozens of talented, deserving artists receive recognition, and much-appreciated cash prizes. As well, institutions receive readymade content that is substantially underwritten. The exhibition schedules of certain key institutions are being stacked by these award shows.
How did this happen? In the 1970s, the Canada Council ruled that annual art society exhibitions, such as the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Ontario Society of Artists, the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, and so forth, were ineligible for funding. The concept was that these shows allowed inclusion based solely upon membership within a society, not curatorial rigour. Thus came to a crashing halt a decades-long mainstay of the public gallery exhibition schedule; this type of show has all but disappeared. Incongruously, privately funded, externally adjudicated award exhibitions now flourish in their place.
I’m totally implicated; I’m often a member of juries, and have booked these prize exhibitions for display. So why should I be surprised when I receive phone calls from artists inconsolable that they were not named to the long list for the Sobey Art Award? That outcome was their dreamed of, sought after reward. I didn’t have the heart to explain to my latest despondent caller that I never thought there was a prayer. Even though I have exhibited the work, collected it for public art museums, and will write a publication, I was too cowardly to admit I was proposing another artist’s work for the York Wilson Endowment Award. The caller’s work just wouldn’t attain national peer group consensus: wrong demographics, out-of-sync stylistic and thematic interests. Our institution has no purchase funds for acquisitions so, of course, we’re going to apply. But we have to play the game and offer proposals that could conceivably win.
Art is made for the purpose of being experienced, not for being judged.
We should all be grateful to the individuals, foundations and corporations that add new resources to support art and artists. I just wish it wasn’t within the context of art beauty pageants. Many years ago, as a brash and irreverent student, I was railing on about the relative merits of one artist versus another. I was reproached by a respected mentor who gently reminded me that art is made for the purpose of being experienced, not for being judged. The admonition stung, but the lesson stuck. Stop ranking art and start looking at it.
So, artists, resist despair when you are passed over for yet another prize. These are only temporal rewards. The royal academies of 19th century England and France wielded enormous authority and clout; they lavished their members with countless honours and distinctions. How has that worked out? Ultimately, art’s reward is the privilege of making art and offering it for consideration in hopes that, in some way, it makes a contribution within the pantheon of revered forbears.
Our current government has promised increased resources to support the visual arts. I’m hoping this will allow us to wean ourselves from award exhibitions. If you or your organization can invest in the arts, may I suggest giving the funds as a direct gift to a worthy public art gallery in support of exhibitions, programs or acquisitions? Don’t squander your resources by creating another unwieldy national competition with cumbersome and expensive logistics. Or, how about this? Why not just buy art you admire? Your purchase could easily equal the value of some awards.
If so, I’m convinced the art in our public galleries would be more diverse and engaging. Vasari wouldn’t necessarily approve, but I’m advocating a process that promotes the value of distinguishing the quieter from the brazen, and the better from the bombast.