For any artist, attaining a prize in art is the highest form of approbation, a great honor as well as a fantastic career boost. As a practical matter, however, the latter is more consequential; yet such awards—whether national in scope (the Turner Prize), corporate-branded (the Hugo Boss Prize), or privately funded (the Bucksbaum Award)—tend to be given to artists who, emerging or not, are known in critical, curatorial and collector circles, and thus are already on track for potential art-world success.
In this respect, the $50,000 Bennett Prize, a biennial open-call, juried competition, is unusual, because it is aimed at artists—specifically, women painters—laboring in obscurity. Explaining the reason for the award, Steven Alan Bennett, who, along with his wife, Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt, inaugurated the Bennett Prize in 2018 with a $3 million endowment to the Pittsburgh Foundation (which administrates the proceedings), says: “The downward pressure of ‘big art’ on women artists was quite palpable. And we could see exceptionally talented artists who were likely never going to obtain recognition. So, we decided to create a prize that would showcase women painters who, regardless of their age or experience, had not yet achieved full professional recognition.”
Submissions for the 2023 Bennett Prize—which for the first time includes a second-place award of $10,000—are being accepted until Oct. 7. The competition is not open to hobbyists, to students, or to artists whose work has previously sold for $25,000 or more or who have received an award or honorarium in that amount. The award is distributed as two stipends of $25,000 each, paid out in as many years. Ten finalists will be selected to participate in a traveling exhibition organized by the Muskegon Museum of Art (MMA) in Muskegon, Michigan, and the winner will be showcased in a solo exhibition at the close of her grant. The opening exhibition will be held from May 18 to Sept. 10, 2023, at the MMA before traveling to additional venues.
Additionally, the Bennett Prize’s requirements include a matter of style, as the competition is limited to artists whose practice revolves around “figurative realism.” This stipulation is the Prize’s other raison d’être, as Bennett and Schmidt are collectors and supporters of women painters who produce such work—sponsoring, for example, a show at Seattle’s Frye Museum of works by Los Angeles artist Christina Quarles, which is on view until June 5.
In fact, Quarles’s paintings, which involve compositions of bodies stretched like Silly Putty, literally illustrate just how elastically the Prize defines figurative realism. “We interpret both concepts, figurative and real, liberally,” says Schmidt. Explains Bennett, “We aren’t necessarily looking for your grandmother’s realism.” Both agree that their definition of figurative realism does allow for elements of abstraction, though to what degree is a matter of interpretation. Schmidt cites the portraits done by Elaine de Kooning and Alice Neel as examples of what would satisfy their criteria, while Bennett adds, “If Chuck Close had been a woman, his work would fit, too.” But ultimately it all boils down to subjectivity. “What is figurative and what is real is pretty much in the eye of the beholder,” Bennett says. “If what appears in a work is obviously a human figure, that’s probably good enough—and the only reason I say ‘probably’ is because each jury has its own vision, and the jury changes from one competition to the next.”
Indeed, the competition to date has evinced an eclectic range of approaches to the genre. Ayana Ross, the recipient of the 2021 Bennett Prize, explores the intersecting issues of race, gender, identity and economics through depictions of daily life in African American communities, using traditional oil painting methods to unconventional ends. Painterly depictions of her subjects (a school-age girl in a vivid, blue-and-white striped dress, seated at her classroom desk; a young boy pensively propped half on, half off a blue bicycle) are set against elaborate backdrops of prints, patterns and decorative designs that serve as visual subtexts.
“Sun with Beach Ball,” Oil, acrylic and flashe on linen, 2018 30” x 24” by 2019 Bennett Prize finalist, Kira Nam GreeneAneka Ingold, winner of the inaugural Bennett Prize in 2019, takes a different tack in both style and substance by employing mixed media on paper, often on a large scale. Her figures are tightly rendered—more drawn than painted—to dramatically graphic effect. They are often posed amidst objects surreally intruding upon pictorial spaces that vary from flat to abstractly illusionistic. In effect, Ingold’s works are, much like Frida Kahlo’s, allegories of female experience that center on her own.
Chloe Chiasson, a Bennett Prize 2 finalist, offers yet another interpretation of figurative realism. She creates shaped canvases in which parts of her imagery stick up from the surface or bulge out from the sides in a way that seems to push her depictions of mostly young, androgynous models—posing in cowboy hats, jeans or other western fashions—beyond the frame of her compositions. Bridging the gap separating sculpture from painting, Chiasson’s works occupy an ambiguous, “in-between” space that is neither fully two-dimensional nor three-dimensional—a liminal state that echoes the evident gender fluidity of her subjects.
If Bennett and Schmidt started the Prize as a means of surfacing these artists, their success has benefited not just the competition’s winners, but its finalists as well. “We are seeing more and more people and institutions—galleries, museums and collectors—embracing the women who have been recognized by the Prize,” Schmidt says. She further adds that their support for the participants doesn’t stop with handing them money. “Over the two-year period between each competition, we actively promote the artists, both in print and online, so that all gain recognition for their work.”
The achievements of artists resulting from their involvement with the Bennett Prize are numerous. For instance, Bennett mentions Pittsburgh artist Su Su, a 2021 finalist. “Her work is now in the de la Cruz Collection in Miami, and she gave a lecture there during the 2021 edition of Art Basel Miami.” Sylvia Maier, another finalist who received an honorable mention from the 2019 Bennett Prize, had a one-woman exhibition at Miami’s Malin Gallery, which ran concurrently with that fair. Meanwhile, another 2019 finalist, Carrie Pearce, had a show at the Dubuque Museum of Art in 2020.
The Bennett Prize has undoubtedly been instrumental in elevating the profiles of these artists, changing their fortunes in the bargain. As 2021 Prize recipient Ross puts it, “The Bennett Prize gave me incredible visibility that has catapulted my career. I’ve sold more artwork—at higher value—than ever before and can really focus [on being] a full-time artist.”
Click here to learn more about The Bennett Prize, current finalists, and entry requirements.