Saturday, November 24, 2012

Art Awards story in the Star

Man, there are more and more art prizes in Canada. I wanted to find out (as much as a brief journalistic treatment might allow) just why that is. So I spoke to a bunch of people—all of whom had really interesting things to say, though I wasn't able to fit them all into the story—and wrote up a brief item on this in today's Toronto Star. Here's an excerpt:

At the Sobey Art Award’s 10th-anniversary bash at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art last week, organizers faced a problem: a stage so small that artists, donors and administrators had to take to it in shifts, shoulder to shoulder.

That scene mirrors the way an abundance of art prizes have come to jostle for attention on Canada’s national stage over the past decade.

In the 1990s, we had few national art prizes. Then B.C. artist Takao Tanabe campaigned for the Governor General’s Awards to be extended into the visual arts and the first such awards were distributed in 2000.

Since then, corporations and private foundations have tripled the number of national art prizes, boosting the pot to more than $700,000 in some years (see sidebar.) Several regional awards — like B.C.’s Audain Prize, the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts Award and the Prix de Montreal — also emerged during that time.

Many Toronto-connected artists have benefited from this recent prize proliferation.

In May, 86-year-old artist Arnaud Maggs (who died Nov. 17) won the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award, begun in 2011. In October, Meryl McMaster, a 24-year-old graduate of OCAD University, won our newest national accolade, the $5,000 Charles Pachter Prize for Emerging Canadian Artists.

Next week, the winner of the RBC Canadian Painting Competition will be announced at the Power Plant. Many involved already feel like winners: Queen West dealer Erin Stump says she’s received emails from new contacts nationwide about local finalist Vanessa Maltese, whom she represents.

But others express caution about the increasing popularity of art prizes.

Read on for the rest at the Toronto Star. I also want to note the following corrections have been submitted:

There is an error the Star introduced into an image caption of the Sobey ceremony; it stated that the ceremony was in Ottawa. I have requested a correction and have been told it will run.

I have also requested a correction to the sidebar header "New National Arts Prizes" - terminology introduced there ("arts") implies prizes for theatre and dance as well as visual art, genres that the story does not address.

To end this post, here are a few thoughts that I wish I had been able to integrate into the story:

When I spoke with Sophie Hackett, assistant curator of photography at the AGO, she expressed the thought that the growth of awards in Toronto in particular may be related to the fact that since the major cultural building and renovation projects have been completed, donors are looking for other ways to support the art scene. Prizes are another important component of the art ecosystem needed for the scene to have "lift-off."

Hackett also noted, “Governments have dialed back cultural funding... I think that has encouraged individuals and corporations to fill the gap in some ways… they’ve seen an opportunity to make a difference in the cultural life of the country or the city that they’re located in.”

When I spoke with dealer Susan Hobbs, she noted that art prizes are still lagging behind music and literature when it comes to public awareness. She pointed to the Giller Prize's TV broadcast, where a variety of nonspecialists in the literary field/Canadian celebrity types, like Rick Mercer, were involved in talking about the award finalists and making introductions for them. She noted that this doesn't happen in the visual arts in Canada.

I also wasn't able to quote from James F. English's landmark tome The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value, but I wish I had been able to note his observation that any criticism of a prize simply tends to augment its profile. As he puts it, “critique … is itself a fundamental and even in many circumstances, an obligatory part of the game, a recognisable mode of complicitous participation.”

English has also theorized that prizes proliferate because they provide the general public—and journalists like me—with a means of coming to know the arts without having to truly understand them. As he writes, "It is almost as though winning a prize is the only truly newsworthy thing a cultural worker can do, the one thing that really counts in a lifetime of more or less nonassessable, indescribable, or at least unreportable cultural accomplishments. In this context it is the prize, above all else, that defines the artist . . ."

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