Art & Patronage: Walters Prize

Art & Patronage: Walters Prize

As the debate on the alleged conflict of interest between the New Museum and billionaire super-collector Dakis Joannou continues to polarise opinion (some see the Museum's Koons-curated exhibition as a breech of museum ethics, while others see it as the Museum doing whatever it takes to get more great contemporary art on view) it seems timely to look at the relationship between art and money, patronage and public art galleries, and public good v. private gain in New Zealand. Over the next week or so we'll look at a few examples of patronage in play in our art world starting with the Walters Prize.

In a comparatively short time the Walters Prize has taken its place as the country's preeminent visual art award. Founding benefactors Erika and Robin Congreve and Jenny Gibbs established the Walters Prize with the Auckland Art Gallery in 2002, positioning themselves as patrons with ideas about how to support artists, not just art gallery benefactors with deep pockets. They were joined in 2006 by art patron Dayle Mace whose contributions ensure that each of the shortlisted contenders receive a finalists prize.
Named after one of New Zealand's greatest artists (Gordon Walters) the Prize is awarded every two years to an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to contemporary visual art in New Zealand. A jury of New Zealand curators and critics select four finalists who present their work in an exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery. On the basis of this presentation an international judge selects the winning artist. The previous judges have been Harald Szeeman (2002), Robert Storr (2004), Carloyn Christov-Bakargiev (2006) and Catherine David (2008). And the Prize has gone to Yvonne Todd, et al., Francis Uprichard and Peter Robinson.
In addition to the $50,000 prize the winner receives an all-expenses-paid trip to New York to exhibit their work in the exhibition space at Saatchi & Saatchi's world headquarters. (Saatchi & Saatchi are corporate supporters of the Walters Prize.) And thanks to Dayle Mace each of the finalists receives $5,000.
The Walters Prize has many great attributes: the four patrons behind it are motivated first and foremost by a desire to support artists; it delivers a biennial exhibition of four new artists projects at the Auckland Art Gallery – one that places the spotlight on the artists' work rather than on the money (the winner is announced towards the end of the exhibition); the shortlisted artists are selected by an independent jury of curators and critics; it brings high-profile, international curators to the country; and it is all done with transparency. It is in many ways a great model for budding benefactors to look at as they consider what it means to be an art patron.
Image: New Museum, New York