What would bring 300 people out on a cold and wet night to an art gallery in regional Victoria? Yes, yes, free wine’s a help (especially if it’s high-quality local drops), but there was more to it. For on Thursday night the cream of Benalla society was at the Benalla Art Gallery in NE Victoria, together with the odd artist, for the opening of the inaugural Benalla Nude Art Prize 2014.
Inside the gallery were 32 finalists’ works, in all their glorious nakedness.
Well-funded art prizes are rare in Australia, and at $50,000 this is one of the richest, and it’s probably the most generous provided through a regional gallery. Inspired by artist Ivan Durrant (a local until recently), the Friends of the Gallery embraced the idea of the prize and raised the entire funding.
Selectors Durrant and Jane Scott (Craft Victoria CEO & former director, Monash Gallery) had whittled the 650-odd entries down to just 32, and they’d done a great job of choosing a range of styles and subject matter. For some of the finalists like me, this was our first selection into a major painting prize, and we were happy to have our works alongside those of established figure painters such as Wendy Sharpe, Robert Dickerson, Godwin Bradbeer and Nic Plowman.
For once though, this wasn’t a Wendy Sharpe benefit. Longtime artworld figure Daniel Thomas (formerly in major curatorial roles at the Art Gallery of SA and the National Gallery) awarded the purse to Juan Davila for his painting of two women in an apparently gay embrace – probably not Davila’s best work, but the subject matter was topical.
This prize and exhibition show that Australia’s better regional galleries are doing fantastic things with limited resources. Also running at the Benalla Gallery at the moment are shows of Polixeni Papapetrou‘s recent photographs and some Albert Tucker portraits. I found his painting of Joy Hester particularly moving. The distress in her face was uncomfortable to look at. But last Thursday night, she was on her own – the rest of us were having too good a time.