Created in 2018, The Bennett Prize is the largest ever Prize offered solely to women painters. The accolade aims to give recognition to women artists who paint in the figurative realist style and who have not yet realised their full professional potential. The Prize, with the call for entry open from13 April to 28 September 2018, awards $50,000 to allow the winning artist to create her own solo exhibition. Renowned art collectors Dr Elaine Melotti Schmidt and Steven Alan Bennett give us more of an insight into the importance of The Bennett Prize and the issues it highlights.

Lovely to speak with you both. How did The Bennett Prize come about? How long has it taken for your idea to come to life?

ELAINE: Great speaking with you, too. The Bennett Prize came into existence as an idea after we concluded a series of studio visits in New York. We started thinking about ways in which we could assist women painters and promote the appreciation of figurative realism. We recognize that being a full-time painter is hard and the associated hardships are multiplied several times if the artist is a woman. Many of these artists are working mums, sometimes single, and just trying to find the time to paint is often a struggle. So, we saw The Prize as a way to address some of those issues.

STEVEN: The art establishment has a love-hate relationship with realism and most of “big art” spends a great deal of time looking for the next big thing. But, as fads come and go, realism remains the nucleus of 95% of art history. All this thinking began after those studio visits 3 years ago. In the intervening time we have been working out all of the logistics associated with funding a national prize, holding a juried competition and sponsoring a travelling exhibition. It all looks so deceptively simple; pick some artists and give one of them money so she can paint. But it hasn’t been that simple.

Amy Hill, Young Woman with Mickey Mouse Pen, 2016, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches
Amy Hill, Young Woman with Mickey Mouse Pen, 2016, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches

With the current political and social climate, how important is the message The Bennett Prize conveys about women’s position in the art world?

ELAINE: We are sorry there has to be a #MeToo movement. But, the fact remains that there have been both historical trends as well as socio-cultural traditions that have worked as a disadvantage to women. We share the view of the Guerrilla Girls that in the art world women have been systematically disadvantaged in both informal as well as institutional terms and that it takes a significant, conscious effort to address the problem.

STEVEN: The timing of The Bennett Prize is fortuitous, given that society appears to be waking up to the problem of subliminal as well as overt gender discrimination. But, The Prize seeks to go beyond the current consciousness about gender-based discrimination and harassment and send the message that women are great painters and deserve the same appreciation, approbation and approval as male artists already receive.

How else do you think can we tackle this issue?

STEVEN: Well, the first place to start is with the concept of mutual respect. Everybody deserves their human dignity. But, when one subset of humanity or another is being disadvantaged, we need to act. For one thing, we should call out gender discrimination whenever we encounter it. We were in the gift shop of a museum the other day that was giving out art related books. One of them was titled something like “50 Fabulous Artists You Should Know”. When we flipped the book open to the table of contents, we discovered that there was only one woman among the 50 listed.

ELAINE: That’s what discrimination looks like, but we don’t have to accept it and we have a duty to point it out when we see it. In the same vein, when we attend group shows, we are always interested in the gender balance among the participants. When a group show is all men, we ought to point it out and ask why? Beyond that, we need to view inclusion as a value, something that enables more powerful and effective outcomes. We are all made better by diversity in all its forms. So, we say, “bring it on! What’s there to be afraid of?”

The Prize will spotlight women artists who paint in the figurative realist style. You are both collectors of this particular genre, what does this increasingly popular style evoke for you?

STEVEN: Virtually all of art history up to the time of the Impressionists is the history of realist art. Figurative realism, which we personally define (incorrectly according to the strict definition) as the realistic depiction of human figures, is a genre that everyone can identify with and enjoy. Our view is that if art has to be explained rather than intuitively appreciated, it is not the best art.

ELAINE: Of course, there is nothing wrong with abstract and conceptual art, but if you are trying to move someone in spiritual and emotional terms, give us figurative realism any time. We have a significant collection of figurative realist paintings by the best women realists working today and we feel that the work takes us to beautiful, mystical and sometimes horrifying places that we might not be able to envision on our own. That’s what the best art does.

When did you begin collecting art? What do you look for in the pieces you collect?

ELAINE: We started our collection about 10 years ago. Each of us looks for something a bit different from the other. I love romantic realism; Steve likes edgier work. Both of us look for visual impact in the things we collect. But there is a significant overlap in our tastes.

STEVEN: We find we like the same things more often than not. Still, our differences enable us to work together tectonically. We’re always rubbing each other the wrong way. (Laughs)

Lee Price
Lee Price, Detail of Teacup, 2014, oil on linen, 38 x 68

How do you think the art market has evolved since you first started collecting?

ELAINE: Two things pop out. First of all, the internet is changing the game. In the old days, the gallery was at the centre of the wheel and the artist and the collector were spokes. Today, the internet is displacing the gallery, and the artist and the collector are finding each other without the intermediary. This, of course, is not universally true, and never will be, but it is directionally true and this trend will continue and will increase. Secondly, most painters are working bigger and bigger and bigger. Over the years, the average size of the available work has gone from, say, 24” X 36” to something more like 36” X 48”.

STEVEN: This is remarkable on a number of levels. It narrows a work’s collectability to those who have sufficient wall real estate to hang it. It drives up prices. It changes the impact from the message to the visual “wow”, which, in turn, changes the way collections look. We’re sure there’s a PhD thesis in there somewhere. (Laughs)

Do you have any new projects in the works at the moment?

ELAINE: We both like diptychs and are intrigued by the possibilities created by multiple images working together. So, we are jointly curating a show entitled “Secondary Meanings: Figural Diptychs” at the Zhou B Art Centre in Chicago in 2019. The call for entries closes on February 1, 2019 and the exhibition will open on May 17, 2019.

STEVEN: The call is open to anyone and includes any work of art in two or more related pieces in which the human figure is central to the piece. For the purposes of the show, this includes painting, photography and prints. It also encompasses sculpture if it has two pieces and a central human figure.

Thank you for speaking with us.


Cover photo credit: Katie O’Hagan, Portrait of the Collectors, 2016, oil on canvas, 78 x 58 inches (detail)


Didier Claes