When I walked in to the Archibald Prize this year at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, even before judging had taken place, it was clear that Fiona Lowry’s portrait of Penelope Seidler (wife of architect Harry) was a standout to take the top prize for many reasons, aside from it being a very good painting.
Fiona Lowry’s Archibald-winning portrait of Penelope Seidler. Photo: Supplied by Art Gallery of NSW.
To start with, it was time for a winning subject that wasn’t a famous actor. With Del Kathryn Barton winning with Hugo Weaving last year, it was always going to be difficult for Paul Ryan’s Richard Roxburgh, Tim Maguire’s Cate Blanchett or Tim Storrier’s vulgar take on the gregarious Sir Les Patterson to get a look in, in regard to the judges keeping the award on an even playing field.
But alas, don’t be put off by the politics, as the Archibald provides the greatest platform to start collecting and investing in Australian art. It’s not only the award that brings prestige to the winning artist but to all the artists whose works are hung in the rarefied environment and it provides a who’s who of the artist’s currently making art in Australia. The added benefits of marketing and advertising of the exhibition, and the subsequent tour to other museums in other states, gives the artist a huge push in public awareness of their work.
Over the years, we have had winners such as Tim Storrier, Ben Quilty, and John Olsen, who needed little branding. But artists such as Guy Maestri, Sam Leach, Nicholas Harding and Adam Cullen (all past winners) saw a definitive surge after they won the coveted prize. This can be seen in auction house results and also sell out exhibitions at their respective commercial galleries.
Even though the prize is based on portraiture, it is the true metal of an artist to handle this subject matter in regard to their overall ability as talented painters. It is well known in the trade that portraiture is very hard to sell at the best of times. Gone are the days when it was fashionable to hang an Edwardian portrait of “a man of letters” or a “woman of aristocracy” above the mantlepiece.
Living with portraiture these days is like having to live with an uninvited non-family member and it is rare that such confronting images of other people are sort after for a domestic setting. The Archibald Prize is a window into an artist’s overall skill and intellect as an emerging or established talent. Often the Archibald Prize can reinvent an artist’s career and can be a gateway for collectors to engage in these artists on a broader level.
In recent years, since the GFC, if you were an artist who did not have an established career, it has been lean times. Young decorative artists of little consequence have maintained their status as readily collectables with little, to no, investment potential. Equally blue chip artists in the big league such as William Robinson, Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley have maintained their bulletproof status, however there is a huge middle ground where collectors went quiet.
With medium income earners still buying inexpensive art and the very wealthy still investing in major names, it is the frugalness of middle class Australia that has hit in recent times and has hurt mid-career artists, who fall into the tens of thousands bracket. Effectively there is much activity under $20,000 or above $100,000 but in between it has been slim pickings. Lately, there has been a slight pick up in this area. There has been some, but still limited, international collectors dabbling in Australian art with many art lovers recognizing that Australian art provided affordable quality compared to our international contemporaries. This is mainly a result of the fact that we do not have a glut of billionaires to propel the prices of our most loved artists and sadly, in most cases, they are philistines as well.
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Another factor is the Government’s strict regulation of art as a self managed super fund investment. It has become complicated to administer collecting art on this basis, as one cannot live with the investment and must store and insure it accordingly. This form of collecting was generally a solid backup for mid-career artists in tough times but it is now more like investing in a racehorse and never racing it but being allowed to pat it in the stable! In the end, it seemed that the Labor Party, as advised by the Cooper Report, was trying to find a way to manipulate what people could, or could not, do with their spare super cash. Similarly, the banks were making it harder for people to take their money elsewhere. In the end, wealthy investors have other places to put their money and it is the artists, the suppliers and the peripheral employees who were hit hardest; not the rich. What our current Government has to do is to make it easier and encourage people again to buy and invest in quality art.
When it comes to our international identity, it is people in the arts who are the leading lights in showcasing us to the world as the “Clever Country”. Not just our actors but also, with the huge involvement in international art fairs, some of the rising stars on the international scene are our visual artists. Ben Quilty currently has an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. We need to encourage our art lovers to buy our art here and not take their cash off shore, we need to keep it here to maintain and build our fragile art economy. Art is potentially still the golden egg in regard to investment, but the Government has to support the notion that in creating a market you need to support and encourage a market, not undermine it. As art is a rarefied commodity of limited production it will always be a case of “supply and demand” dictating the market. This market has cultural and ethical ramifications, as to how intelligent and sophisticated we are as a nation. As the great poet W.H.Auden once wrote, in regard to the role of the arts in our society, “It is in the prison of our days; to teach the blind man how to praise”.
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