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The Archibald Prize: A Mirror of Society

Art Lovers | 24 March 2019

The Archibald Prize is Australia’s most famous portraiture prize, it can be career making just to be listed as a finalist and certainly the $100 000 prize money goes a long way to help an artist pay the bills.

Let’s look at the data of the Archibald’s 95 year history to see how to win. I warn you now it is a shocking reality check not just for the Arts but of Australian society.

1976 Archibald Prize Winner – “Self portrait in the studio” by Brett Whiteley

A snapshot of how to WIN the Archibald

  1. Be CAUCASIAN

ALL 95 past winners of the Archibald have been white.

  1. Be MALE

83 of the past winners have been MEN with just 12 WOMEN artists being recognised.

1968 Archibald Prize Winner“Lloyd Rees” by William Pidgeon

  1. Paint a CAUCASIAN SUBJECT

There has only been 3 Indigenous Australian subjects in the winning paintings in the entire history of the prize.  The vast majority have been Caucasian.

  1. Paint a MALE SUBJECT

With 79 of the winning portraits depicting a male subject and only 15 a female subject, it would seem that society finds men more interesting or more important. Really?

  1. Live in NSW or Victoria

80 of the past winners resided in NSW or Victoria, this is not that surprising as the Prize is held in Sydney. Whether is an unconscious bias due to the judges being exposed to the ‘local’ artists or simply that the costs of transporting artwork across the country excludes many entries.

1945 Archibald Prize Winner – “Lt-General The Hon Edmund Herring, KBC, DSO, MC, ED” by William Dargie

In summary, a white man painting a white man and living in NSW or Victoria has the best chance of winning the Archibald Prize. Hmmmm, have there been unconscious biases at play?

1972 Archibald Prize Winner“The Hon E.G. Whitlam” by Clifton Pugh

Let’s look a little deeper.

Things are changing. This is data from the Archibald’s entire history, and reflects the discrimination that many in our society faced over that time. From limited opportunities for education due to remoteness and less gallery representation for women, to societies biases in celebrating and promoting male achievements. It takes time to even the playing field and see a balanced and equitable representation of Australia’s talent but it is happening.

1994 Archibald Prize Winner“Homage to John Reichard” by Frances Giacco

There is hope.

The last few years have seen close to parity with male and female finalists. The People’s Choices (first awarded in 1988) is particularly interesting. It’s clear not just white men have talent.

The approx. 20 000 visitors chose talent in a diverse range … not a white male painting a white male in sight!

2018       Anne Middleton’s portait of Guy Pearce (Australian Actor)

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2018 People’s Choice Winner“Guy” by Anne Middleton

2017       Anh Do’s portrait of Jack Charles (Indigenous Actor and Activist)

2016       Nick Stathopoulous’ portrait of  Deng Adut (Sudanese refugee and Lawyer)

The Archibald Prize winners have been…

2018       Yvette Coppersmith  ‘Self Portrait, after George Lambert’

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2018 Archibald Prize Winner – “Self-portrait, after George Lambert” by Yvette Coppersmith

2017       Mitch Cairns  portrait of artist Agatha Gothe-Snape

2016       Louise Hearman portrait of Barry Humphries

At the inception of the Archibald Prize in 1921 Australia was a very different place. We have been growing up and hopefully becoming a fairer society since then. We have seen the removal of the “white Australia” policy, Indigenous Australians have been acknowledged as citizens (rather than flora and fauna) and finally a ‘sorry’ was uttered, women’s access to higher education has seen a shift in the power balance, gay marriage legalised.  We have come a long way and we have a long way to go …politically … and across the arts. Melbourne, all girl band Camp Cope called out Falls Festival (2017/18) organisers just last year for the lack of female representation on a very male dominated line-up.  Really people?  I’m not calling for quotas but please have a bit of self-reflection and hold yourselves accountable.

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2017 People’s Choice Winner“JC” by Anh Do

If the Archibald is a reflection of Australian society I am pleased to say I see great hope. In a few short years things have become a lot fairer. We just need all those talented artists that gave up entering years ago to enter again.  The Archibald is ready for them now.

Data can be found at:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-03/chart-of-the-day-archibald-prize-gender-ethnicity/9723364

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