Lessons from an art prize judge

With hundreds of art prizes offering opportunities, how do you get cut through with your application? We ask an art prize judge.
portrait of curator Sebastian Goldspink

Everyone loves an art prize. So much so, that today there are hundreds of them nationally. Some have specific themes and genres, while others are high profile, creating a cult of celebrity – but all are an exercise in professional development and exposure.

One of the greatest questions received at ArtsHub is how, as an artist, do I find the best prize for my practice and one that will get my work seen? So we put the question to an art prize judge, Sebastian Goldspink.

Founder of ALASKA Projects and Curator of the recent 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australia Art, Goldspink has judged numerous prizes over the years, including the important John Fries Memorial Prize in 2013/14 and upcoming, the Churchie Emerging Art Prize, which opens at IMA Brisbane, 30 July. He views the task as a privilege.

ArtsHub: Why judge an art prize?

Sebastian Goldspink: For me it’s a great way to see the breadth and depth of practice in an Australian context. Granting winning awards to artists that I know will have a fundamental impact on their lives and careers is always a thrill and an honour, particularly when I am fortunate to see the outcomes.

AH: Knowing what you know now, what would your advice be to yourself about to take on that first prize judging gig?

SG: I think the first time judging can be a very daunting experience. I had the honour of judging alongside some very established judges. I was coming from the world of emerging art and artist-run spaces and didn’t have the careers of my fellow judges. My advice would be to honour your perspective, value where you come from, particularly if it’s a different viewpoint. Honour your instincts and be ready to advocate your position.

Read: Maximise your chances of winning a visual art prize

AH: How important is context and knowledge of art history and the contemporary art scene, or is all about focussing on what is in front of you when judging?

SG: I think all perspectives are important. It’s a combination of an informed and an instinctual perspective. Knowledge of the artists’ previous work helps to contextualise what’s before you. Knowledge of contemporary art in context also helps particularly to safe guard against deliberately derivative work.

AH: What are the three main things you are looking for?

SG: An artist that is reaching for something, extending themselves and their practice. Work that is well finished as opposed to polished – it has to have an intention and a dynamism. It can be grungy or provisional but without intent it falls flat. Work that feels sympathetic to the other works in the final but stands out.

AH: What about judging as part of a panel, how does that work and what is the advantage of that in your opinion?

SG: It’s a rewarding and collegiate experience to be on a panel. There is definitely less internal angst. When you are the sole judge you have a lot of personal conflict internally. Sometimes you need to walk outside just to refresh your eyes.

AH: Do you prefer working as a panel or stand alone?

SG: I’ve experienced numerous modes of judging and don’t have a firm preference. I really try to focus on art and artists. They are who are important in the process. I’m there to be focused, fair and frank.

AH: What is the key advice to an artist submitting? I am assuming that first cull is done digitally for most prizes, so how critical is that first digital submission?

SG: It’s crucial to have good images. I can’t stress this enough. I’m not suggesting professional shots but I am an advocate for clear, appropriately sized shots without distractions in the background.

In terms of biographies and artist statements make them clear and informative. Don’t try and dress them up in unnecessarily obtuse language. If you are a photographer mention that as opposed to giving your second-hand take on Foucault.

AH: Tell me about the 2022 Churchie Emerging Art Prize which you are about to judge; why did you take this on, and why do you think this prize is important?

SG: The Churchie is a really valued award. It has a wonderful history and I’ve seen first-hand the benefit that emerging artists get from receiving national recognition for their work. To an artist just starting out it is a reassurance to them, their families and colleagues that they have something to contribute to the larger story of art in Australia

AH: How much of what you see across prizes enters your work as an independent curator?

SG: I’ve benefited so much from being exposed to artists work through prize entries. I’ve made numerous connections and this includes artists that haven’t made the final selection. I pride myself on being a curator who has a wide database of artists in my mind. I’m often called upon by other curators to recommend artists for projects. Many of these artists come directly through the judging process.

AH: Have you ever submitted artworks yourself to a prize (that is been on the other side)?

SG: Fortunately for all I am not an artist. That being said I’d feel very strange if there was a curator prize. I empathise with the process for artists as many of my friends are artists and I hear their battle stories but also share in their victories.

AH: What about disappointment, how do you manage that across the prize landscape?

SG: A good friend of mine says that you are allowed to be sad for 24 hours then you dust yourself off and move on. It’s good advice. Just because you don’t win or aren’t selected as a finalist doesn’t mean anything in the scheme of things.

AH: Do you think Australia’s prize landscape is too congested?

SG:  I am an advocate for opportunities for artists and see prizes as a clear opportunity so I’m all for it. I say that recognising that there are so many prizes.

AH:. And what about the divide, themed or not themed / genre or no genre etc. What do you personally think makes for a better prize?

SG: I like open prizes as a preference.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina