How to win the Archibald prize

The Archibald Prize is a prize offered for the best Australasian portrait. It is valued at $50,000 and probably generates more media coverage than any other Art award in Australasia. We are all allowed and encouraged to have an opinion on the Archibald, to the extent that the parallel awards made by the Gallery packers and the voting public are also widely publicised. The Art Gallery of NSW manages to turn the public distrust of the judgement of art ’experts’ into a profitable sideline by selling tea towels, t shirts and coffee mugs with a quote from a gallery packer to the effect that art schools have a lot to answer for.

The Archibald tells us it is, in keeping with the original bequest, an Australasian award and in previous years the roadshow has travelled to at least Victoria. This year the travelling show only makes it as far south as Albury and as far north as Coffs Harbour. No doubt there are good art politics and funding reasons for this NSW parochialism but it does seem a shame that it can’t get around the capital cities of Australasia so we can all join in the fun.

There were 849 initial entries in the Archibald Prize for 2010 and this was reduced to a short list of 34 paintings. Our untutored impression was that there were rules in place against such things as caricature and cartoons, but this does not seem to be the case. There were several entries chosen by and for the art industry that the untrained eye might think were crap. This would obviously represent a failure of our aesthetic sense, so it would be best just to stroke our chin meditatively and move on to the next picture.

A small quibble here might be directed to the Gallery curators. If you are going to number pictures in an arbitrary fashion, why not just hang them in number order. Perhaps you could just hang them first and then start at the beginning with number 1 and work your way around the collection.

This year’s winning portrait of Tim Minchin was well chosen as it was one of the best few portraits in the competition. It was also surprisingly small; more like one of a set on a wall than a centrepiece picture.  Most of the other pictures were feature wall size. We also liked the People’s Prize award to the backlit portrait of Warwick Thornton and the Packer’s Prize winning portrait of Glen Baker. The Highly Commended awards were where we diverged from the opinion of the judges, partly on the basis that we thought cartoons were, or should be, unacceptable in a portrait competition.

So how does an aspiring artist win such a prestigious award?

The first qualification is to be a male artist, like 80% of the finalists. Additionally, your subject should be male as well, as 88% of the portrait subjects were.

The next major qualification is to be resident in NSW as 62% of those I could identify from the catalogue are. There were also 6 Victorians and lone individuals from each of SA, WA, NZ and Queensland. It was even more important to paint someone from NSW as 65% of the portrait subjects were from NSW with 31% from Victoria and a solitary kiwi representing ‘Other’.

Including the self portraits (as we must), some 53% of the finalists were either Artists or Art Gallery curators etc.  An additional 30% of the portraits were of people involved in such parallel artistic endeavours as Theatre, Music, TV or Writing. A couple of politicians, some academics and a boxer represented the rest of the world.

Realistically your best chance of success in the Archibald is to be a male artist from Sydney who paints a male gallery director from Sydney, preferably in a manner which highlights some of their charming idiosyncrasies while playing with the formal conventions of traditional portraiture.

You have to wonder if the initial 849 entries for the Archibald Prize are as profoundly biased in their gender, geography and subject matter as the 34 finalists. Some of the selections seemingly were chosen more for their command of Art Theory and the delicate art of self promoting BS than for any aesthetic reasons. But then, there is little point in accusing the art world of being an incestuous little pond full of self promoters. They are just more open about it than many other professions.

The Archibald Prize exhibition together with the associated Wynne Prize for Landscape and Sulman Prize for Hmmmm! are a fine afternoon’s entertainment, and they really should send the roadshow to Melbourne in future. C’mon art luvvies, get over your little tiff. Or better yet, get Cate (spouse of a portrait finalist) to have a word to Kev about some Commonwealth cash to ship it around the country.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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