Missing picture: why Australia needs its own Turner prize

It often seems that Australia is awash in art prizes. There are awards for painting and sculpture, video, ceramics and watercolours. You name it, there’s probably an award for it. Even modest regional galleries can stump up anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 for a prize. But in all the noise of awards, prizes, grants and fellowships, very few achieve a national profile, and even fewer have much lasting significance.

While awards for specific genres or particular media are valuable in their support for niche artistic practices, it often feels like what Australia is lacking is a significant and truly national prize for contemporary art.

Nest by Katthy Cavaliere (2010).

Art prizes can have their downsides, reducing art to a competition and a gaudy media blitz. On the other hand, a major prize can also give artists a much-needed boost, a badly needed injection of cash and some critical context.

The go-to example of this is Britain’s Turner prize, where the work of shortlisted artists is staged at London’s Tate Britain, and every other year at major galleries around the country. Rather than just one piece, a body of artists’ work is shown. Turner may have had its controversies, but the argument there is usually about the art, not celebrity.

An award that will be announced on 8 April, Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship, gives us a clue as to how such an award might be organised in Australia and how it could achieve national significance.

Italian-born Australian artist Katthy Cavaliere, who died in 2012 aged 40, was a pioneering feminist artist, and despite some setbacks and inconsistent support at home, she managed to have an international career, feted by major artists such as Marina Abramović. After she died, her modest estate was used to create the fellowship.

It’s the richest contemporary art fellowship in Australia that is specifically aimed at female-identifying artists. Three recipients will receive $100,000 each, and then have the opportunity to stage a solo show at one of the fellowship’s three participating organisations: Carriageworks in Sydney, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, and the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.

Like the Turner prize, the three shows by the fellowship recipients will be major bodies of work, seen in a major institution with credible visual arts programs. The shows will rise or fall on the quality of the work, and the critical debate around them will itself be useful. The fellowship will also help to raise the profile of female-identifying Australian contemporary artists.

The only downside of the fellowship is that it’s a one-off. Unless a benefactor steps in, there’s no more money after 2019.

A major, national contemporary art prize therefore needs two things: a continuing bequest to support the prize financially, and a group of major institutions to support it. As awards like the Archibald prize for portraiture prove, even regressive awards for largely dead genres can maintain a level of public recognition with the backing of a major gallery and a prize purse big enough to attract serious contenders.

For all it’s significance, as a one-time event, the Cavaliere fellowship will likely fade into the background of recent art history, and soon thereafter into collective cultural amnesia.

State and national governments, especially those run by Coalition governments, have proven time and again that despite occasional displays of largesse they are largely hopeless when it comes to consistent and continuing support for the arts. The only viable option for funding, in my view, is the private sector.

Despite a lot of complaints to the contrary, Australia has a dedicated if small band of philanthropists and collectors. Those individuals and families whose money helps stage events like the Biennale of Sydney, support collecting contemporary art by major museums and galleries, and even go so far as to support artists by paying for studio rent and residencies for emerging and established artists.

The cynic might say, sure, it’s all about the tax breaks – and that can’t be discounted – but on the other hand, no one is being forced to support the arts.

The other critical element of this idea is the support of Australia’s major museums and galleries.

To escape the wretched parochialism of Australia’s art world where even big-money prizes and awards are considered the intellectual property of the cities where they are held, and despite whatever media coverage they may achieve, what this country badly needs is national leadership in the arts.

If that means coming together to share resources and philanthropic support to profile the best art being made now, it seems logical that audiences will follow.

As the Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship demonstrates, such a thing is possible. We only have to dream big.

Published in the Guardian Australia, April 6, 2019.

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