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The Australian Art Scene

By Janelle Hatherly

The art scene in Australia is vibrant and thriving – it always has been. Our clear blue skies and rusty red earth, Gondwanan flora and fauna, abundance of fresh air and wide-open spaces first inspired ancient Aboriginal rock art, the oldest surviving human art form. Then generations of settlers, who called this Lucky Country home, added the famous sunshine and their own cultural heritage to artistic creations and an eclectic mix of styles and genres evolved into what we call Australian art today.

Jennifer Higgie, Australian author of ‘The Mirror and the Palette’ – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits recently addressed What is contemporary Australian art? in an essay for National 4: Australian Art Now. She tackled this ‘shape-shifting, daunting, slippery, impossible task’ admirably, and I commend this to you as an all-encompassing snapshot.

Jaq Grantford, Darling Portrait Prize winner

Since joining the Portrait Society of America (PSoA), I’ve been asked what it’s like for portrait and realist artists in Australia. This is the scope of my focus here. Like Higgie, I consulted art buddies, gallery owners and museum professionals – all with strong connections to traditional fine art and portraiture.

Everything in Australia, including the art scene and portraiture specifically, is challenged by the tyranny of distance. Our huge island continent with relatively few people (under 26 million) is physically isolated from the rest of the world, making it hard to get classical art training, earn a living as a professional artist, or sustain a viable art business.

Some museum professionals believe the blue skies of Australia are the bane of our country’s artistic cultural endeavours. Fine weekends and long summers draw people to outdoor pursuits much more than visits to museums and galleries. This is more apparent the further north in Australia you go. And sadly, displays of quality realist art seem to come and go as private galleries cater for collectors demanding colourful wall furniture as advocated on reality TV shows.

Historically, aspiring artists (like Nora Heysen and Brett Whiteley, winners in 1938 and 1976/78 respectively of our most prestigious portrait competition, the Archibald Prize) needed to travel overseas to further their education and study the works of masters. Overseas artists rarely made pilgrimages to Australia; and, with little was known of our art history, a unique cultural bubble developed Down Under.

Australia has world-class national and regional art museums but these are limited in number and there are none (like the New Salem Museum in Massachusetts or MEAM in Barcelona) that focus exclusively on realism and showcase contemporary masters. There are art fairs but only a few capital cities are equipped to regularly present exciting edgy events like Queensland’s Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art and Sydney Contemporary.

There are also discrepancies across states, with the East (the most populated) having the best exhibitions and most educational opportunities. Opportunities for classical training at skills-based training facilities like The Julian Ashton Art School (founded in Sydney in 1890s) are rare, and visual art courses at tertiary institutions continue to focus on art history/theory and foster self-expression and creative experimentation.

Postmodernism, therefore, still abounds in our art competitions. There are less than 100 Australian significant art awards in any genre, and portraiture is even more restricted. However, Australia has amongst the richest art prizes in the world (on a per capita basis and depending on the AUD) and in portraiture alone we have six prizes worth more than AU$50,000 each.

While Australia might lag behind some international art trends, we’re ahead in others. We represent art by women, indigenous artists and socially-marginalised groups better than most countries. We’re leaders in feminism. South Australia (and New Zealand) was the first jurisdiction to grant women suffrage and our own Germaine Greer led the global second-wave feminism movement in the 1970s.

Exhibitions like Know my Name and WHO ARE YOU: Australian Portraiture are two recent outstanding examples of Australian museums equitably collecting and displaying art created by women, and portraiture by all societal groups. Well-established women-only art prizes such as The Portia Geach Memorial Award and The Ravenswood Australian Women’s Art Prize positively discriminate to redress the gender imbalance, and more women seem to be winning art prizes.

Jaq Grantford, People's Choice, Archibald Prize 2023

This year was the first time there were more women finalists than men in the Archibald Prize. A woman took out the major prize and PSoA member Jaq Grantford won the People’s Choice Award. Jaq also won the prestigious Darling Portrait Prize in 2022. The National Portrait Gallery has made a great leap forward with its 2024 Darling Portrait Prize. For the first time, a major prize in Australia is taking into consideration the challenges faced by artists and is offering free competition entry for all, and financial assistance for finalists.

A downside of living in a small pond is that we have big fish in it! The majority of finalists selected for our main prizes typically come from a small group of artists – all known to each other. Understandably, the public galleries are more likely to choose works for their collections from these well-established and clearly excellent artists.

The Archibald Prize is a case in point. Now in its 102nd year, it has always been judged by members of the governing board of the Art Gallery of NSW. With that stamp of approval, artists who are selected as finalists are automatically deemed icons of contemporary culture and their career prospects are suddenly elevated. They are more likely to be selected again … and unsuccessful entrants are more likely to be rejected again. The judges’ choices are rarely popular and the portraits on display convey all manner of styles, skill levels, political and social biases. The whole country jumps on board with an opinion resulting in shock, provocation and dialogue. On a positive note, this has done more to increase public awareness, appreciation and creation of portraiture as an art form than any other annual event.

Like most prizes, the Archibald has always included some representational art, but it's a small percentage and rarely wins. Yet the general public responds favourably to craftsmanship and recognisable likenesses, so realistic portraits often win the People’s Choice Award.

An advantage of being a realist painter is that if people are going to commission a portrait, they generally want a recognisable likeness. And even though Australia’s population isn’t sufficiently large or wealthy, competent portrait artists can make a living from it. They might need to supplement their income by teaching workshops and producing a mixed body of work for galleries and other sales.

However, in the last thirty years, the whole world has changed dramatically. Technological advances and internet connectivity has brought everyone closer together. All the fine art and portraiture that has ever been collected is now accessible for viewing on-line and educational materials and guided instruction are there for anyone interested in learning. There’s more art (of all genres) being created than ever before and the standard in all has improved dramatically over that time.

Paul Newton, 2023 Draper Grand Prize winner

With so many art styles it’s understandable only a small number of realism works are chosen in competitions. It’s the same everywhere. Fortunately, Europe and the US, with larger populations, are able to support prizes that are purely for representational artwork. Australian artists can and do enter these, and do well.

Through social media, Australian artists can now connect with like-minds, learn new skills, showcase their work, and market themselves locally and internationally – virtually and in-person! Australian artists are now part of the global art community with increased opportunities for sales, competitions, commissions and workshops.

Portrait Artists Australia was an active group between 2002-2014, but now Australian portrait artists are better supported socially, educationally, and professionally as international members of the PSoA. We’re all very proud that Australia’s portrait artist Paul Newton, sixteen times an Archibald finalist, won this year’s PSoA’s Draper Grand Prize.

In 2019 Australian and New Zealand members re-established their unique cultural identity with the formation of the PSoADownUnder network. I am privileged to be their first PSoA Ambassador and you can get to know us – and Australia’s amazing art scene – by reading our latest newsletter online!

DownUnder Network Newsletter cover


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