More like Archi-bored

The iconic art competition is too predictable, writes Helen Xue.

The 2014 Archibald prize for portraiture is well underway at the Art Gallery NSW, and once again we are left to ponder the reasons we continue to ridicule the exhibition yet flock to see it anyway.  The Archibald prize continues to exercise an irresistible pull on your average non-gallery-going-attendee, and temporarily transforms even the most artistically ignorant to definers of cultural sensibilities and taste. The process is as much a sham as the actual award itself.

The Archibald began in 1921, following the passing of John Feltham Archibald. The majority of his estate went to the prize awarded to the best portrait, “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.” Two main rules apply. The artist must be a resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date of entry. The portrait must also be painted from life, and the subject must sit for the artist at least once.  Currently, the prize money stands at $75,000 for the winner – not a bad paycheck at all, considering it only costs $50 to put in an entry.

In light of these conditions, the accessibility of the Archibald cannot be denied. Indeed, the prize shamelessly prides itself on providing career-defining exposure for amateur artists. I, too, could enter a self-portrait of an ibis defecating on my head. However, a more sensible entry would be a portrait of my law-abiding, inspiration-inducing, cancer-surviving immigrant godfather for the 2015 Archibald. But I won’t, despite fulfilling every crowd-pleasing cliché of a (fictional) sentimental sob story, my chances of winning the Archibald are pretty much nil. Here’s why.

There is a formula for winning the Archibald. And it is a formula that amateur artists cannot replicate without substantial difficulties.

The main criterion of the subject matter being a ‘distinguished’ man or woman is now synonymous with notable celebrities in modern day curating practices at the Gallery. Attending the Archibald this year, my companion was more excited by her ability to identify celebrity individuals than closely viewing the portraits themselves (“Wow, is that Cate Blanchett? She looks so ill lol.”) Without the recognisable mugs of Adam Goodes, Torah Bright and Anna Meares, it is inevitable that the Gallery would see slumping attendance rates and shrinking profitability. It therefore becomes a necessity for artists to discover and persuade a ‘distinguished’ celebrity such as Hugo Weaving and Naomi Watts to pose, if they want to become a finalist with a good shot at winning the Archibald – not a small feat for an amateur artist.

Painting a celebrity adored by the wider population would also ensure a high probability of taking out the People’s Choice category, although the paltry $3500 prize money calls into question the worth of this pursuit. Nonetheless, this category is essentially a popularity contest. Forget it if the entry entails political elements or experimental technique that goes beyond photorealism, it will not win over Asher Keddie’s (of Offspring fame) gentle smile and Vincent Fantauzzo’s portrait of his toddler son, complete with a superhero costume and puppy eyes.

A further obstacle exists in the judging method, as the Art Gallery NSW’s trustees are appointed as judges. A quick glance at the list reveals that most trustees hail from corporate backgrounds without a distinguished record in fine art. This is offset by the inclusion of three artists out of eleven trustees on the board. Even then, the value of the artists’ input in discerning artistic merit is questionable. Rumors of intense lobbying efforts and pre-existing friendships between the certain trustees and artists surfaced when Del Kathryn Barton won her second Archibald for her portrait of Hugo Weaving.  Given the tight-knit nature of the Australian art community, it would be naïve to assume that such relationships did not exist, or that these associations had little impact on deciding the winning entry. Throw in a major corporate sponsor in the form of ANZ, and it is easy to see why the winning entries have lacked artistic innovation and controversial substance in the last few years.

Apply the formula and it becomes easier to pick out a winner of the Archibald prize than the winner of an Australia vs Chile World Cup match. This is precisely why media outlets such as The Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC called this year’s winner as soon as the finalists were announced. Fiona Lowry’s portrait of Penelope Seidler, the wife of renowned late architect Harry Seidler and an ongoing patron of the arts, is the perfect subject that the trustees love to endorse and honour.  Lowry’s portrait won not because of the execution of her airbrush technique or composition. Rather, her victory resulted from her genius choice of subject, a choice as every bit conservative, safe and perhaps a touch drab as the monochromatic palette of the painting itself.

Presently, the Archibald prize is a boring and predictable exercise wholly lacking in artistic merit and imagination. It operates solely as a successful cash cow for the Art Gallery of NSW, guaranteed to bring back audiences year after year due to its devotion to celebrity culture. Long gone are the days where Brett Whiteley won in 1978 for his self-portrait depicting his personal fight with drug addiction. Nonetheless, we continue to be sucked in by the allure of the Archibald prize, inescapably transfixed by its mediocrity and predictability. Our annual attendance is secured, for there exists no other exhibition that provides a visual smorgasbord of random individuals and celebrities alike.