Masthead

ART AWARDS: HIGH FASHION OR ENDURING PASSION?

By Katherine Hoby

Are art awards a membership to an exclusive club, a door opener, a conversation starter and/or a highlighter of new or undiscovered talent? They are probably all of these, but more importantly do they have the power to influence a subsequent movement in art? We ask Katherine Hoby to find out.

Andre Hemer, 'Big Node#10', 2015. Photo: Courtesy of the Wallace Arts Trust

As an art lover but someone who doesn’t pretend to know a lot about how the movers and shakers of the art world move and shake, I wanted to take a look at art awards, and whether they respond to fashion, or possibly have an impact on future art practice.

Depending on which art awards you’re talking about the award gods seem to swoop in, anoint a new chosen one, then just as quickly fade back into the background for another year or two. And whether that person’s win and work then influences others is an interesting question.

I personally feel the individual artist’s passion or what they make of the opportunity the awards might throw their way may inspire other artists, but in terms of larger trends in the art world, I just don’t see it.

When awards are announced, it certainly makes a select group sit up and notice. And depending on the award, the winner and the individual work, that group might be other entrants, art lovers, or members of the public. And the response also ranges right through from ‘who/what is that?’ / ‘wow’ to total shock and disbelief.

It seems results can bring artists, usually such solitary creatures, together or set them at each other’s throats.

Dane Mitchell, 'Collateral', 2019. Image: Courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Dane Mitchell’s so-called “rubbish work”, Collateral, winner of the 2009 Waikato National Contemporary Art Award, was one example of the latter.

His work consisted of binned wrapping from other award entries tipped on the floor of the Waikato Museum, in line with his written instructions submitted to gallery staff.

Fellow entrants and other Waikato artists panned the entry calling its win “insane” and saying “this pile of rubbish is not art”.

Perhaps it is too simplistic to say there was at least a hint of ‘provincial shock factor’ to the win, and if it had been selected as winner in an Auckland-based award nobody would have looked up from their latte. The Waikato awards, after all, define themselves this way: “brave, colourful and never shy”. Nothing too cringey provincial in that.

Mitchell simply said his piece seems to have been perceived as “an attack on labour”, in other words he was seen to have done next to nothing for the artwork, and the award which followed.

“I think there’s something ingrained in people that labour equates with quality. What labour has to do with anything is beyond me. But perhaps it’s a puritanical thing.”

Whatever the response, it certainly opened up debate on what is and isn’t art – which is completely subjective but always ensures a lively conversation.

Portage Ceramic Awards 2017 Installation. Photo: Sam Hartnett

Returning to the possible love-hate response to award results, it seems some, particularly those which are more niche can actually bring artists together instead of pitting them against one another. One great example is the annual Portage Ceramic Awards, run by Te Uru in Titirangi, Auckland.

Te Uru Director Andrew Clifford says Portage represents an opportunity for the community to gather in what is more often than not a very solitary practice.

“Aside from the publicity aspect, there is some personal affirmation to it. There is a lot of self-doubt in creative industries, and this represents an opportunity for affirmation.”

A big win is often career-defining, he says – and allows entry to a very exclusive club. 

“It puts you in another echelon, and confirms you are an artist to be taken seriously."

2017 Residency Award Winner Andrea du Chatenier, 'Untitled' (yellow stack). Photo: Courtesy of teuru.org.nz.

A big win is often career-defining, he says – and allows entry to a very exclusive club. 

“It puts you in another echelon, and confirms you are an artist to be taken seriously. “

And when the community comes together to look at the leading contenders, artists often percolate on the leading contenders, and discuss the variety of practice used including some new ones. This is where, he says, other artists may get inspiration for their own work.

It’s great to think artists might find new inspiration in an awarded piece, or try a new technique or medium, perhaps in a nod to what they’ve seen highlighted in awards.

I feel awards can be a pointer to who to look for rather than what to look for. In other words it can do great things for an individual – in terms of sales, publicity, residencies, or other opportunities. It certainly raises their profile, whether they were known already or not.

And rather than perhaps looking at how the winners, or even those shortlisted for major awards, impact on what comes next in the art world, I feel it’s relevant to look at how a major award win/recognition impacts on the future work of an individual.

As the spotlight swings their way and enables them perhaps more freedom to work (through financial gain), or moves them forward via travel, or a residency for example.

It expands subject matter, media or minds even further than the artist thought they would go, taking their work to another level.

And in a culture pretty obsessed with its sports and celebrity, awards may cast a spotlight on art and artists, and getting people talking about art has to be a good thing.

Mark Rayner, 'Little', 2016. Photo: Courtesy of the Wallace Arts Trust

For those in our little slice of South Pacific paradise, who can feel quite isolated from what or who’s next on the hot list, awards can let us know who would should take a look at. And if an entrant, winner or shortlisted artist creates waves with their work, all the better. Sometimes you don’t have to win to feel the ripple effect.

A great example of this was Mark Rayner’s work from last year’s Wallace Awards.

Wallace Arts Trust Operations Manager Matthew Wood says though Andre Hemer’s painting Big Node #10 (2015) was a very deserving winner, Rayner’s hand-latched wool on rug work Little (2016), easily became most commented on work in the award exhibition in Auckland.

Wood, who has steered the awards through eight different iterations, should know.

Obviously this was at least in part down to its subject matter, but also shows works other than the winner can generate interest, buzz or controversy. Little was shared, commented on, and re-Tweeted extensively on social media.

Part of entering awards – depending on which ones we’re talking about – involves sticking your neck out. You might get nowhere. But as with other creative industries, you either keep your art close or share it – and hold your breath for a reaction.

Painter Philip Trusttum, a Wallace Award judge 15 times in total, says he only ever got up the courage to enter an art award once. He didn’t win.

“To put your work in as a punt, a lottery. It depends how strong you feel. It takes courage to send your work in, and I just don’t think I’d have the courage.

But it’s also like me turning up at your house and just having for dinner whatever you’re having that night, and judging your cooking skills on that one dish. If you’re a working artist you have a body of work and you may choose to send your littlest work out there like sending your littlest child out to be judged.”

He feels the winners, especially in the Wallace, are such a diverse bunch that it’s hard to draw any lines between them and developing trends in the art world. I tend to agree.

Yvonne Todd, 'Asthma and Eczema', 2001.

There is the distinct possibility that things operate in reverse in some ways – that the trends or ‘what’s hot’ of art impact on who is chosen as a winner.

Dame Jenny Gibbs, co-founder of the Walters Prize, alludes to this when she talks of local ‘fashion’ or expectation having an impact on winner decisions if judged by a local, hence the necessity for a total international outsider as judge.

She points to two examples to illustrate what the awards can do for an individual’s career.

Yvonne Todd, a total unknown, who famously won the first one with her work Asthma & Eczema  – instantly became known and in demand.

Luke Willis Thompson, 'inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam' 2012.

Luke Willis Thompson is another example. His work was not really viewed as ‘collectible’ prior to the award but having won the award in 2014 with inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam has had several shows overseas since, including New York and London.

For individuals it can be a very different experience and winning, or being shortlisted for, one of the big art awards can lead to great things.

Roger Mortimer won the top honour at the Wallace Art Awards in 2014.

“You spend a lot of time plodding away, and these sort of acknowledgements sustain you and motivate you,” he said

He agrees the awards help bridge the gap between the art world and the public, which often seems vast.

His six month residency in New York as a result of the win allowed him to meet other artists, and experience a lot of historical and current art.

And while he finds it difficult to gauge the impact of the experience, he acknowledges a renewed sense of confidence and ‘go forward’ with his work as a result of the Wallace award.

So, far from taking general trends forward, every accolade takes the individual into a future that likely would not have eventuated if not for their award - a future fuelled by passion, not fashion.