In many ways, an art prize contradicts some of the core beliefs we hold to visual art – that art is subjective and beauty is, primarily, in the eye of the beholder. Framed as a competitive exhibition, however, an art prize involves different works of art from artists working across diverse mediums, geographic regions and at different stages of their career, jostling against one another, vying for space and attention, with only a single work deemed most worthy of winning a large cash sum. Some art prizes also feature ancillary awards, doled out to second and third places, as well as a winner via democratic vote – the people’s choice.
Paradoxically, an art prize represents consensus. Often structured as an open call, whereby hosting art galleries and museums invite submissions from contemporary artists currently practicing across the country, an art prize is judged chiefly by a select yet changing panel of experts – leading curators, high-profile artists, critics and gallery directors. This process affords consensus and credibility to the decisions made, not only for the winning work but those selected as finalists too. To be a finalist in an art prize is to receive industry recognition, confirming an artistic deftness with materials or conceptual innovation, and can consolidate a trajectory within an artist’s practice. Winning an art prize can validate the career of an artist at any stage, from highlighting promising young talent to galvanising an artist’s long-term commitment to a particular medium, discipline, style or conceptual pursuit.
In Australia, a single art prize can range in value from $1,500 to $150,000 and offers a significant one-off investment in an artist’s career. A prize might enable an artist to invest in studio facilities or upgrade their equipment; undertake travel or research that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive; or directly support their family or community’s livelihood. Many art prizes are also acquisitive, meaning the hosting gallery procures the winning work as part of their collection. An art prize, therefore, offers many artists a significant pathway into state and regional collections across Australia.
An art prize also makes visible the often unseen force of the market. As Brisbane-based contemporary artist Michael Zavros describes, “to borrow stock market trader language – a prize adds to consumer confidence.”Many collectors buy non-acquisitive and finalist works off the back of an art prize, while visiting curators, gallery directors and dealers might use the occasion to scout new artists or observe crucial developments in an artist’s career. The value of an art prize goes well beyond the winning work as artists are picked up and entered into a wider circulation of exhibitions, collections and commercial representation, assuring them greater visibility and potential for longer-term success.
 Michael Zavros, “Art Prizes in Australia”, NAVA, July 31 2017
The Art Gallery of South Australia’s Ramsay Art Prize is one of Australia’s more generous art prizes, valued at $100,000. It also features an additional $15,000 People’s Choice Award. Open to contemporary Australian artists under the age of forty, the Prize has no restrictions on scale, medium or subject matter. In fact, winning works to date have included a six-metre long quilt, a double-sided painted portrait and a kinetic stainless steel pendulum.
As an acquisitive prize offered in perpetuity, under the cultural philanthropy of the James and Diana Ramsey Foundation, the winning works acquired into the gallery’s collection will trace an important trajectory within contemporary Australian art into the future. For Daniel Mudie Cunningham, one of three guest judges in 2021, the process of selecting finalists and a prize winner was an “…incredible gift to me as a curator. In some ways, I’ve got my research sorted for the next ten years.”
 Daniel Mudie Cunningham, “Ramsay Art Prize 2021: Winner Announcement,” filmed at the Art Gallery of South Australia, 21 May, 2021, Facebook livestream, 22:44
Rhana Devenport introduces the Ramsay Art Prize 2021
As a class, create an Art Prize for your school. Assign roles to each member of the class to form a committee:
- Judges: Who have you selected as your judges? What is the criteria for selecting a winner? Will you have a People’s Choice Prize?
- Entries: What are the rules for entering works of art?
- Venue and Display: Where will the exhibition be displayed and who will install the work?
- Exhibition: When is opening night? Who will open your exhibition? Will you have a catalogue?
- Sponsorship: Who will sponsor your prize? What will it be? Perhaps approach local businesses or your school principal.
The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.
This education resource has been developed in collaboration with ACE Open and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Written by Dr. Belinda Howden with contributions from Louise Dunn, Kylie Neagle and Dr. Lisa Slade.