Opinion: “It’s time to judge the Archibald Prize”

Detail of "The Weight of Expectations", a portrait of Tom Ballard by Guy James Whitworth.

Sydney artist, author and provocateur Guy James Whitworth weighs in on that sacred cow of the art world, the Archibald Prize.

There’s a lot of talk at the minute about what ‘the new normal’ will look like in a post-Covid world. I’m going to take that conversation in another direction and talk about how the art world could look if we carefully design it.

For those who don’t know, there is a painting competition each year here in Sydney called the Archibald Prize. It is an esteemed competition which started in 1921 and it happens every year. It’s an open competition of portraits (i.e. anyone can enter) although the portraits must be of a well-known person, and the winning artist gets a meat tray and a magical talking hat, or some such thing. 

Actually, I wouldn’t really know what the winner gets, because despite my best efforts I’ve never gotten anywhere near being selected as a finalist.  

For this year’s entry I painted the household name and stately homo Tom Ballard who, pre-Covid, travelled up from Melbourne, sat in my studio, gossiped and drank my gin (true story). He was funny, nice and we had lots of shared values and I thought, yup, without a doubt, this is it, this is a winning portrait for sure!

Well actually, no, (spoiler alert) unfortunately not. I didn’t get in, so that turned out to be a waste of perfectly good gin. 

“The Weight of Expectations”, Guy James Whitworth’s portrait of Tom Ballard. Image: Guy James Whitworth/supplied.

As the Archibald Prize 2020 throws opens the grand front doors of the Art Gallery of New South Wales this week, there will also be a slow sad shuffle of artists picking up their rejected works from around the back. And I will be one of them. Tough times and tough titties. 

But how could this be? Again? (I think this is my fifth entry!) Do they not know who I think I am? My name is Guy James Whitworth and I am an artist. I am, I really am! I have successful exhibitions, documentaries have been made about my work. Yet here I am, once again peering in through the Archies’ windows; a waif-like-match-seller trying to keep warm in the golden glow of an exhibition of successful finalists. 

Joking aside, rejection is really tough, and this is already an especially tough time for those in the arts. We can’t have a system that keeps punching down on artists and expect that community to thrive. So maybe it’s time to stand back from this landscape and ponder on exactly what we are seeing.

Asking artists with hugely varied styles and messages to compete is unfair. It’s not just comparing apples to oranges, it’s comparing traditional melons to abstract spiky pineapples. Come on art world, we are better than this! Are my fruit similes just bitter and sour grapes? Well yeah, kind of, but it feels like society keeps offering us struggling artists chocolate dipped strawberries just to find, actually, that’s not chocolate.

Artist Melissa Ritchie with “Linguistic Feminist”, her portrait of Cal Wilson. Image: supplied.

The world is changing and it’s time some traditions and systems changed as part of the oncoming ‘new normal’. I mean, if we in the art world don’t lead the creative shaping of this new world, who will? Let’s create new systems that encourage and celebrate all our artists, rather than expecting them to (pay to) compete in the soul destroying, uninspiring world of art competitions.

Now, I’m not the only huge talent the Art Gallery of New South Wales will be kicking themselves for letting slip past this year. A quick scroll through my Facebook feed produces a roll call of artists who, while not selected, still deserve to be seen and appreciated.

Melissa Ritchie is an artist I have a lot of respect for, her work is beautiful and I’m the first to admit that her work pisses all over mine from a very great height! 

To my almost feverish envy, she was a finalist a few years ago, and has re-entered again this year. When asked why she put herself through this repeat trauma she tactfully (she’s as lovely as she is talented) answered: “Why do I continue to enter? Because I’m a junkie chasing that first high, and I will enter again and again.”

Guy James Whitworth by Raj Panda. Image: Raj Panda/supplied.

Raj Panda is certainly an artist who is very used to getting into many other art prizes and even winning them (I utterly hate him). He had the joy, indeed privilege, actually let’s say honour, of painting me for his entry this year. Very diplomatically, he says: “I’ve been entering the Archibald for the last three years without any luck. It’s disappointing but the rejections push me forward to keep improving my art.”

Taaniko and Vienna Nordstrom by Tania Wursig. Image: Tania Wursig/supplied.

Tania Wursig is a friend whose work is extremely commercial and recognisable. This was her fist time entering. She says: “Being primarily a portrait painter, the Archibald prize was a competition that has obviously been on my radar for some time. It was just finding the right subject matter. As i have a strong affiliation with Polynesian cultures, I felt Taaniko and Vienna Nordstrom, of Soldiers Road Portraits were the perfect subjects.”

I could keep going but basically, struggling artists shouldn’t be struggling against each other.

What I’m saying is: we shouldn’t be comparing creative fruits; at this point what we need an imaginative new system.

As a suggestion, maybe all the Archibald entries could be posted online and the public decides the winner, so all artists entering can be seen by everyone?

I’m not a huge fan of trophies for just turning up, but I think we could level this playing field and make it so that everyone is offered the same audience and encouragement?

Or maybe the Archibalds could start issuing coffee shop-style loyalty cards? Nine failed entry stamps and your tenth entry is free? (OK, firstly, this is sarcasm; secondly, I’ll admit it – it’s also sour grapes!)

Rejection is tough so please show some compassion to your creative friends at this time of year – and let’s also aim to do things differently. Because I mean really, who needs a meat tray and a talking hat? 

Footnote: At time of publication, it had just been announced that the winner of this year’s prize is Vincent Namatjira, who won for a portrait of himself and Adam Goodes (this is on top of Meyne Wyatt’s cheeky self-portrait winning the packing room prize last week).

This makes Namatjira the first Indigenous artist to win in the prize’s 99-year history. An utterly awesome outcome, and a promising indication that the Archibald Prize is open to change, as well as fairness, equality and a progressive way of thinking.

The Archibald Prize 2020 Exhibition is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW, Art Gallery Rd, The Domain, Sydney from 26 September, 2020 to 10 January, 2021. For tickets ($8-$20+ transaction fee) and more information, visit www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/archibald-wynne-sulman-prizes-2020/.

Follow Guy James Whitworth on Instagram at www.instagram.com/guyjameswhitworth.

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