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Elitism at the Archibald Prize

Painting a picture of the Australian art scene.

Image credit: Felicity Jenkins, Art Gallery of New South Wales

With entries recently closing for this year’s Archibald Prize, artists both young and old, emerging and established, have all rushed to get their portraits in from around the nation. While the exhibition regularly draws big numbers and significant media attention, you’d be hard pressed to find people who often agree with the judge’s picks for the winner.

So what’s the problem? One could argue the prevailing issue is anti-intellectualism, as a majority of works fail to capture the essence of the subject, but rather a photo-realistic representation. The images become more a show of skill in making the portrait seem photographic, rather than using the medium of painting to its full advantage: a medium wherein reflecting objective reality is not the primary aim. However, this cannot be said of all the winners, and this is usually a problem with the People’s Choice Prize rather than the actual judges themselves.

Where the real issues lie, I would argue, is a self-fulfilling cycle of elitism, which rewards the wealthy and the well-known, and disadvantages those without an elaborate web of connections or the financial backing to make up for it. We regularly see the same recurring celebrity artists featured as finalists in the prize — figures such as Anh Do, Vincent Fantauzzo, Tim Storrier and Shaun Gladwell. One need only scroll down the Wikipedia page of previous year’s Archibald Prize winners to be confronted by a wall of names in blue, linking you to massive, career spanning blocks of articles stressing their notoriety. These artists are well established figures, and while they may produce good work, their more mediocre entries may potentially take the space of someone less prominent.

At the same time, the rules are designed to aid this elitism, and when convenient, are often thrown out altogether in order to accommodate this perpetuating cycle. Under the guidelines, it asks for the portraits to be of “some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Sciences or Politics.” How is an up-and-comer able to rub shoulders with such distinguished figures if they are not already a celebrity themselves? 

Another rule requires that it “must be a portrait painted from life”; a rule which is regularly broken by the artists, and virulently ignored by those judging. While most portraits present their figures in vacant voids to create the illusion of some sort of studio sit-in with their subject, some painters don’t even try to hide the fact that their works were aided by the use of photography. Tessa MacKay’s 2019 work Through the Looking Glass features famous actor David Wenham posed uncomfortably in an outdoor location. Taking into consideration lighting, the movement of reflections, and Wenham’s pensive gesture, attempting to paint this piece live sounds like a nightmare. While I might concede that a follow up rule asserts artists may only have “one live sitting with the artist,” that doesn’t prevent someone from having a quick meeting with the subject, taking a couple photos and then going their separate ways. Considering the celebrity status of Wenham, it’s no surprise why the judges chose to ignore these rules.

Aside from this, most artists outside of New South Wales have great difficulty getting their entries in. Speaking with artists who have previously submitted works to the Archibald Prize, they expressed their annoyance at having to pay large sums of money to transport their portrait to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As an aspiring artist, it’s difficult to choose between paying the bills or fulfilling your dream. 

Finally, the consensus among audiences is usually that the judge’s pick the weakest link out of the finalists for the top prize. While I often don’t mind the artworks they award, one must wonder why they themselves are not artists. “Trustees of the gallery,” — the investors, moneymakers, and owners. These people have a vested interest in drawing in crowds and bumping up ticket sales. While the rules stipulate that two of the eleven judges must be artists, that is still an overwhelming majority of people judging an art prize who are not artists.

As an emerging artist, especially one potentially graduating from SCA or just starting USyd, this all may sound confronting and hopeless. But there are alternatives to the Archibald machine! Whenever the Archibald Prize exhibits, over on Observatory Hill in the CBD, the S.H. Ervin Gallery showcases a competing program — Salon des Refusés —  which features many of the Archibald rejects. Oftentimes, this exhibit features works far more intellectually engaging and skillful than the finalists of Australia’s so-called ‘top prize’.

On the other hand, if that is still too mainstream for you, there are a plethora of smaller galleries around Sydney that are always looking for emerging artists and doing callouts for new talent. You’ve just gotta keep your eyes peeled. One lot of galleries I enjoy going to is along Hampden Street in Paddington, with the latest and greatest new, exciting, up-and-coming artists. And with the trees extending themselves over the street, and the leaves gently falling down, it fills you with a romantic reverie that the imposing, monolithic AGNSW never can.

Editor’s note: this article was edited to reflect the composition of the gallery trustees.

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