Are Prizes and Awards Important to Fine Artists?

Receiving a Grumbacher medal does not assure a visual artist that a line of patrons will appear at his or her door the next day, or making the cover ofmagazine, or being ranked among the top artists of one's time.
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There are many points at which the lives and careers of visual and performing artists diverge, and one of them is how they are honored and what those honors mean. Top film actors are nominated for academy awards; their stage counterparts may receive Tony awards, while musicians are eligible for a Grammy. These honors subsequently define the careers for these performers and certainly lead to career adjustments, such as their receiving an avalanche of scripts and contract offers. In short, their prestige is heightened in and out of their fields: An academy award winner will always be one -- years later, the honor will feature prominently in that person's obituary -- regardless of whatever else takes place in the individual's life or career.

In the visual arts, there are various prizes and awards, some offered by art material suppliers (the cash value of which often is redeemable in the manufacturer's own products), some that are purchase awards by museums, others established by art schools, advertising agencies and art show sponsors that provide modest amounts of money. In addition to top awards, second and third place prizes as well as honorable mentions are also frequently offered that may involve money or a certificate -- something to include on a resume.

All of these visual arts awards and prizes have far less value to the artist than a Oscar or Tony. It is not uncommon that someone is described as an "award-winning artist" without ever noting which award(s) the artist has won. That may be just as well, as few people would have heard of the particular award anyway. Receiving a Grumbacher medal does not assure a visual artist that a line of patrons will appear at his or her door the next day, or making the cover of People magazine, or being ranked among the top artists of one's time. In fact, the most lionized and successful artists, whose works are featured in museum retrospectives or whose faces adorn the covers of ARTnews or Art in America are unlikely to ever enter the competitions that offer prizes and awards. It is not even much of an event, for instance, when a Jasper Johns wins the top prize at the 1988 Venice Biennial, as his standing in the art world was already greater than that of the award.

Still, thousands of artists compete annually for awards and, for many, the awards and prizes area on their resumes is quite expansive. However, there is a wide range of opinion concerning to whom these prizes actually matter. On one end of the spectrum, there is a belief that prizes and awards do not matter at all. "It is absolutely of no importance to me whether or not an artist has won any prizes. It is absolutely of no importance to my collectors," a New York City gallery director said. "None of the artists here get prizes. Those artists who get prizes just are not in our league."

"Winning an award is nice when it happens for the artist," Janelle Reiring, director of New York's Metro Pictures gallery, stated. "It makes the artist feel good, I guess. It doesn't make any difference to me or to the collectors I deal with. Our collectors are certainly concerned with what critics and museum curators think, but not at all with what prizes or awards the artist may have won."

Other art dealers take a different view. "Which awards the artist has won matters to me, and matters to collectors," Benjamin Mangel, owner of the Mangel Gallery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said:

They are especially beneficial to an emerging artist, who may have little else to show. I have collectors who need to see that the artist has credibility, and it helps when I can talk about the artist's scholarships, awards, prizes. It's not a crucial factor in selling a work but, when you've got someone who is on the fence and says, 'Let me read something about this artist,' if you show the collector a blank sheet of paper, that collector is not going to buy the work. If you can show that the artist has won awards and prizes -- that the artist has credibility in someone else's eyes -- nine times out of ten that collector is going to buy the work. The only time that kind of information doesn't matter at all is when the collector falls in love with the work and doesn't care who the artist is.

A number of other dealers around the United States agree that prizes are of greatest importance for artists who are younger or who need some kind of third-party validation because they don't yet have a reliable market for their work. Lisa Harris, an art gallery owner in Seattle, Washington, noted that when an artist is just starting out in his or her career, listing prizes and awards "helps affirm the collector's own feelings about the artist. As the artist enters a later stage of his or her career, those credentials tend to be jettisoned, and the prizes and awards category disappears from the resume. The artist shouldn't need to refer to first prizes anymore."

The category of prizes and awards is frequently elastic, expanded by artists to include fellowships from foundations and governmental agencies as well as project grants from those same (or other) sources. The differences in prestige between who gives awards or prizes may be enormous. A number of art dealers, who otherwise claim that the fact of an artist winning a prize is of no importance to them, stated that their interest is piqued by artists who have received a Guggenheim fellowship, for instance.

Gregory Amenoff, a A New York City painter, said that "when I am to give a talk somewhere, I am frequently introduced to the audience as the recipient of three NEA grants. Obviously, that has given me a certain status with some people, but I wouldn't want to overemphasize its importance. I've never heard a collector say, 'I heard you've received three NEAs and wanted to see what your work looks like.'"

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