First-time portrait painter Lynn Savery won the Moran this year. (Supplied: Doug Moran National Portrait Prize )
The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize might be Australia’s richest art award but on its 30th birthday, its relevance is under debate.
The finalists, including this year’s winner, first-time portrait painter Lynn Savery, went on display a week ago alongside an exhibition of all the winning portraits since the Moran began in 1988.
The exhibition is full of white faces. All winning faces in its 30-year history have been European, and this year’s finalists? From 1,300 entries, each one of them is white too.
Contrast this with the Art Gallery of NSW’s (AGNSW’s) Young Archie’s portraiture prize for kids, which each year attracts thousands of entries. This year over half the 39 portraits hung as finalists were non-European, many of them Asian.
Are we looking at the future of portraiture in the Young Archies? Maybe not. It is possible we are just looking at Australia and those Young Archie finalists, aged from about five to 18, are playing with portraiture before most of them veer off into other careers.
Certainly, those kids and their parents felt empowered to enter. They felt welcome.
Nauen Lee, 9, from Blacktown is the 2018 Young Archie competition winner in the nine to 12-year-old age division for this portrait of her mum. (Supplied: Art Gallery NSW)
Broader snapshot of who we are
The long-established Archibald Prize has made solid gains in recent years to present a broader snapshot of Australian faces and to include Indigenous artists, even though there is scant tradition of portraiture in Indigenous art.
The $40,000 annual Brett Whiteley Traveling Art Scholarship hasn’t fared so well.
Also administered by AGNSW and given to a promising young artist each year, the Whiteley has in 20 years always gone to a white artist, leading some observers to dub it the “White Bretley”.
With portrait prizes, the face in a portrait does not automatically denote the race of the artist who rendered it but commonly they are the same.
So, on a superficial level, what does an exhibition exclusively of white faces telegraph to non-white artists?
‘It’s not for me’
Perth-raised artist Abdul Abdulla is a repeat finalist in the Archibald portrait prize, the Sulman prize and Blake Prize for religious art, among others. This year he also judged the Young Archies.
Abdulla cannot remember the last time he entered the Moran, despite the generous $150,000 prize up for grabs, because, he said, the judging process is unpredictable.
“I look at it and go, it’s not for me,” he said.
Artist Abdul Abdullah is a four-time Archibald Prize finalist, including his portrait of Anthony Mundine in 2013.
(Art Gallery of NSW)
Adbullah said the Moran Prize “feels less democratic” than the $100,000 Archibald Prize judged by AGNSW trustees.
“Of course as philanthropists [the Moran Trust] can do whatever they want,” he said.
Three of the past four Moran winners have been art world outsiders but previous Moran winners have included artists at the top of their game like Ben Quilty, Nigel Milsom, Michael Zavros, Vincent Fantuazzo, Fiona Lowry, Prudence Flint and Louise Hearman.
These days it appears they do not enter, or find success — only Fantuazzo’s portrait of his partner Asher Keddie was chosen for the final exhibition.
‘We just judge on the image’
Artist Louise Hearman, former art gallery director Ron Radford and Moran matriarch Greta Moran judged this year’s Moran.
Mr Radford was not present when the first-time portraitist Lynn Savery was announced the winner.
Hearman said the make-up of the finalists’ exhibition was “an accident”.
“All we did was judge on the image itself. We didn’t look at ethnicity, place, we just judged on the image,” she said.
Greta Moran said a family member had joined the judging group a few years ago to ensure co-operation between the artist and the curator. She said she kept out of the process, leaving it to the professionals.
“I was surprised they [people of different ethnicity] were not in it this year because there’ve always been Aboriginal paintings, and Chinese as well. It’s just a matter of what the judges like best,” she said.
Abdullah said, “I could totally understand how people could walk into a place like that and think I’m not welcome here so I’m not going to enter,” he said.
For this reason, the Archibald remains Australia’s most coveted prize.
The public attention on it is unsurpassed and despite it often being dismissed as a “chook raffle” judged by trustees who “don’t know anything about art,” it still carries enormous prestige.
The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize exhibition runs from November 2 to December 16 at Juniper Hall, Paddington.