Now that the dust has fully settled around this year’s Hunting Prize, it seems appropriate to have a second look at this notable art event.
The prize is $50,000 awarded annually to a 2-D artist who is not a photographer (i.e. a painter), by Hunting PLC, an oil services company. Last year the prize was limited to Houston artists (winner: Francesca Fuchs). This year they expanded it to include artists anywhere in Texas. The winner, Dallas painter Michael Tole, was announced at a party in Houston on April 28.
When people here first heard about the prize, the general reaction was, Gosh, that’s a lot of money. To put it in perspective: the Guggenheim’s biannual Hugo Boss prize is also $50,000, and the Tate’s Turner Prize is ₤25,000 (roughly equivalent to $50,000). From a cash standpoint, the Hunting Prize is in heady company. And yet it’s not respected, and doesn’t get the press, that these other (admittedly controversial but still important) prizes do.
Everybody is happy to see a Texas artist win money, and nobody wants to scare Hunting off from giving so generous an award. But few people like the way the prize is conducted. Whether this matters to the Hunting people, who can give away their money however they please, is unknown. But as it is, the prize is a pale reflection of what it could be, both for the artists and the sponsor.
This year the competition was organized as follows: any artist in Texas could apply. Applicants had to fill out an online application and also submit, via mail, a single slide image of a work. A first jury* made the initial cut down to 104 finalists. Finalists were asked to ship the piece from their slide at their expense to Houston for the announcement party, which was held April 28 at the Houston Decorative Center. Artists were asked to arrive early for the party and instructed beforehand to stand by their art during the night as an “opportunity for them to sell themselves and their artwork.” A second jury** selected the winner, Michael Tole, whose name was announced at the event.
It’s possible that Hunting is happy to keep the prize just as it is; that they would prefer to reward painters of gentle, lovely, inoffensive works, as the catalog of previous winners from Britain would suggest; and that they have no interest in turning the prize into the PR juggernaut that it cries out to be.
But let’s assume that Hunting does want to raise their company profile (after all, they are publicly traded). And let’s assume that they’re committed to making the prize as excellent as it can be, something that it’s a profound honor just to be shortlisted for, to say nothing of winning. The following are some practical suggestions that might help achieve these goals:
1. Commit to excellence
The prestigious Art Prize… is a Texas-wide open competition that offers established artists, talented newcomers, and promising amateurs an opportunity to vie for its $50,000 award. – Hunting Prize website
Amateurs? When asked, Hunting’s representative confirmed that they would “absolutely” be happy to give the prize to an “amateur” artist.
She didn’t parse the meaning of the word (and indeed, many “professional” artists don’t earn half of their income from sales of their work, so the line is admittedly a bit gray). But amateur artists are almost never any good. For that matter, many professional artists are hit-or-miss. And it’s very hard to be an artist. There’s not a professional artist in Texas for whom $50,000 is not a lot of money — 2 or 3 years of living expenses kind of money.
No significant art prize should reward amateurs who aren’t serious enough to commit to being a professional in the first place. To do so treats the prize like it’s $500, not $50,000.
2. Change the selection process
“The whole plan was to judge on one piece of work — not the artist’s resume. And we felt that this particular criteria helps maintain continuity with how it was done in the UK.”
Judging based on a single image is absurd. No artist wants to be evaluated by a single work, and it is very difficult for a jury to get a sense of how good an artist is from just one slide. Hunting PLC wouldn’t want to be evaluated based just on their cash, or their P/E ratio, or their pension liability.
Hunting should also update their online application so that artists can upload electronic images (not have to mail in slides), and they should ask for 3 or 4 images per artist. Then the first jury will be better equipped to select the short list based solely on the work itself. “Maintaining continuity” with how things were done before is not important to anybody in Texas.
Finally, the second jury should do studio visits with the shortlisted artists. There is absolutely no substitute for seeing work in person, and if you want your prize to go to the best artist, this should be requisite. True, this is logistically difficult and expensive given the geography involved — unless you
3. Limit the shortlist
This is the single most important change Hunting should make. Reverting to a shortlist of 10 (or ideally, 5) artists alone will increase the prestige of the prize and significantly help the finalists in their careers, if that is indeed one of Hunting’s goals. As it is, finalists are lost in a sea of wildly divergent quality. As one artist put it, “I was excited to be a finalist, and then I saw the huge list, and I was like…oh.”
4. Get an artist on each jury
Nobody knows more about making art.
5. Connect with energy people who know are involved in the art scene
Hunting does not seem to be reaching out to members of the energy industry (and related industries, like law and financial services) who bring art world savvy along with business connections to the event. How does one find such people? Start by looking at the boards of directors of Texas art institutions, or better yet
6. Hire a good PR firm
Hunting should hire a top PR firm with strong ties both to business and art/society media. There’s no networking in Texas like social and philanthropic networking, even in the energy sector, even when your event coincides with the Offshore Technology Conference and you’re presumably hoping to bring in non-Texans. At the risk of sounding gauche, within a few years, a great PR firm could easily turn this party into THE social event during OTC.
Also, hire a PR firm that understands good graphic and web design, and that won’t misspell the winner’s name in the headline of a press release.
7. Have a party that’s tasteful, fun, and attended by people worth knowing
– If you say you’re going to be strict about the guest list, have someone actually checking people in at the party.
– Unless you’re in Vegas or Disneyworld, or you’re being ironic, don’t have people painted to resemble bronze statues as part of the decor.
– Pick a venue that’s not a gigantic, tomb-like labyrinth. As one attendee said, “You could have been there the whole time and not seen people you know.” The Decorative Center is an awful space.
– Hire a good band, or blow off having one. A man and a woman doing classic rock with piano and guitar is not the ticket. Hint: if their playlist includes Heart or Simon and Garfunkel, move on.
– Don’t group artists into headings like “Picasso” and “Rembrandt.”
– Get good energy industry people there: have more fund managers, traders, and operational people, and realize that many people in the art world actually know who these people are. Make sure any serious collectors who are in the energy business are there — they will help to bridge the gap between art people and energy people, which according to many attendees was uncomfortably palpable at the event.
– Make it easy to find the art. (Reducing the number of finalists will help.)
8. Realize you’re dealing with the art world
Art people are not corporate types. Relax; have fun. Don’t sweat it if someone shows up underdressed. Don’t micromanage the artists, instead
9. Treat artists as you would be treated
Even if Hunting wants to support a “less elite” strata of the art world, it should treat the artists like professionals and honored guests, which was the opposite experience of every finalist I spoke to. Despite Hunting’s best intentions, most artists were taken aback and even offended by the event.
Artists should not be fed separately from the main party, even if the food offered is the same as what is offered to other guests (which it wasn’t). Artists should not be asked to work a party where they are the honorees by standing next to their artwork and “selling themselves.” This is a prize party, not an art fair, and work shouldn’t be sold there to begin with. It puts guests on the spot and creates an uncomfortable us-them situation. If work must be sold, artists should not have to handle the administrative side of the transaction. Artists shouldn’t be asked to wear identifying nametags, particularly if waitstaff and bartenders will avoid serving them, as some artists claimed. Artists should not be told that something is going to be great for their career when it won’t be. They know it.
In short, if you’re going to have a party to give away a huge amount of money to a worthy artist, if you your stated belief is that “art has enduring value, and that those who produce it deserve sponsors” and your prize is meant “to give artists a platform for recognition” and “to celebrate the culture of artists,” then treat the artists at your party like professionals who know what they’re doing, are at the top of their game, and who deserve recognition and celebration.
[On the infamous food issue: artists were told there was a “lovely buffet” set up specially for them, which turned out to be chicken tenders, green salad and “some kind of Mexican manicotti” (and no alcohol) located obscurely in a 2nd story foyer adjacent to the parking garage — one artist said you could literally eat while you looked at your car. The food downstairs was shrimp, tenderloins, crab claws, truffle macaroni and cheese, “tons of desserts,” and free-flowing wine.
Every artist I spoke to claimed either that they were strongly encouraged or outright forbidden to eat the nicer food downstairs. Hunting said that artists were definitely allowed to and encouraged to eat and drink downstairs, and that the upstairs buffet was there because the artists were being asked to come so early, and they might get hungry being stationed at their painting. At the end of the day, it was probably just a well-meant gesture that was handled very clumsily. In an ideal world, the 5-10 finalists would come a bit early to meet the Hunting brass, then be free to enjoy the party along with everyone else.]
Finally, no serious prize asks artists to pay to ship their own work.
Most people in the Texas art world want the Hunting Prize to be something that, for now, it is not. Rather than recognizing excellence, the prize values quantity over quality — as one insider put it, “they’re not looking for the best of the best.” But Hunting could easily create something that actually does help artists other than the winner. For now, the prize is a lottery: artists will apply because of the size of the award — but they won’t take it seriously, and neither will anybody else.
Rainey Knudson is the founder of Glasstire.
*Jury #1 was Viola Delgado (Latino Cultural Center, Dallas); Deborah Dobbins (TCA, Austin); and Fairfax Dorn (Ballroom Marfa).
**Jury #2 was Regine Basha (Fluent~Collaborative, Austin); Holly Johnson (Holly Johnson Gallery, Dallas); and Valerie Olson (Glassell School, Houston).