A portrait of Australian of the Year 2014, Adam Goodes by Alan Jones.

A portrait of Australian of the Year 2014, Adam Goodes by Alan Jones. Photo: Cole Bennetts/Getty Images

The Archibald Prize for portraiture is the most popular, storied, and mocked art award in the country, with spinoffs including a Packing Room prize, an Exhibition of Rejects and the Bald Archies. The Olympics of the local painting scene, a piece of performance art in its own right, or an arty version of reality television? Andrew Taylor surveys the scene.

Q. Why is the Archibald the art prize everyone has heard of?

It is not the most valuable and certainly not the most respected art prize. But the clue to the Archibald Prize’s notoriety lies in the far-sighted terms of JF Archibald’s will from March 1916, which stipulates the prize will be awarded to the best portrait “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics”.

A portrait of Cate Blanchett next to a portrait by Kate Beynon. Both are finalists in the 2014 Archibald Prize.

A portrait of Cate Blanchett next to a portrait by Kate Beynon. Both are finalists in the 2014 Archibald Prize. Photo: Cole Bennetts/Getty Images

That means a painting of a celebrity these days, especially given the rubbery way in which the Art Gallery of NSW, which runs the prize, applies the rules.

And that is why the Archibald Prize circus is the one time of the year when commercial TV networks send reporters to the gallery to feign an interest in the arts.

If Cate Blanchett or Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes’ mug was not among the portraits competing for the prize, few people would care and it’s hard to imagine sponsors like ANZ stumping up tens of thousands of dollars for prizemoney.

The Archibald has little to do with art and a lot to do with our fascination with celebrity. Or if you can’t find a celebrity, paint a well-lovedSydneysider like Penelope Seidler, wife of starchitect Harry Seidler, and the subject of this year's winning portrait by Fiona Lowry.

You would be hard pressed to find a distinguished scientist or author among the celebrities favoured by the trustees. The prize is “a media circus" according to gallery owner Michael Reid. "Who an artist chooses to paint is as important as who actually does the painting.”

Q. Is it basically art gallery clickbait?

The Archibald Prize is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a cash-strapped gallery - a low-cost exhibition that generates more than a $1 million in income.

More than 130,000 tickets were sold to the exhibitions of the finalists for the Archibald, Wynne (landscape) and Sulman (genre, subject and mural painting) prizes last year, compared to 115,000 paying visitors in 2012. The 2087 entrants in the prizes forked out a $50 entry fee and the show does not incur the hefty insurance and exhibition fees associated with blockbuster shows.

The uncanny ability of the trustees who judge the Archibald and Wynne landscape prize to court controversy, and occasionally land in court, no doubt maintains the Archibald’s notoriety.

The former AGNSW director Edmund Capon sagely observed: "It's in the tradition of the Archibald to make a financial contribution to the legal profession every now and then."

But, again, that’s about public biffo rather than artistic merit.

Q. Beyond the celebrities portrayed, though, is part of the Archibald's appeal that we just like reading faces?

How many people know or care about the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, which is worth $150,000? Portraits of nobodies, no matter how worthy the subject or how good the artwork, don’t grab our attention.

The winners of the Archibald’s sister prizes, the Wynne and Sulman, certainly tend to be ignored unless they generate a storm in a paint tin regarding plagiarism or questionable judging.

Q. Is it taken seriously by the art world?

The Archibald Prize attracted 884 entries this year (up from 868 last year), which seems to suggest it is held in high regard by artists willing to pay the $50 entry fee plus take the time to create a portrait.

But not even its greatest supporters will defend the quality of all these portraits. "It does capture an awful lot of dross and I suppose inevitably it creates some false legends," Capon said.

Last year, a historian at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery, Dr Sarah Engledow, described the Archibald Prize as "a little Sydney kerfuffle".

"I don't come from Sydney so I don't really care much who wins the Archibald," she said. "It amazes me it occasions the comment it does in Smug City."

But the NPG’s new director, Angus Trumble, says: “It’s lovely to have an event that celebrates and uplifts portraiture even though it’s limited in scope because it only includes paintings.”

Q. What do the winners of the prize over its 93 years say about our culture and history?

This year, Fiona Lowry became the eighth woman (Judy Cassab and Del Kathryn Barton have won twice) to be awarded the Archibald Prize. That is a gender disparity matched by few other institutions in society.

Yet five of the gallery’s 11 trustees are now women and this year’s prize features work of 18 women artists among the 54 portraits in the exhibition.

While the cult of celebrity is reflected in the number of portraits of actors and singers, and paintings of politicians and businessmen are rare, self-portraits and depictions of other artists are also popular - no doubt because it is easier to persuade a fellow artist to be painted, warts and all. Yet it is hard to imagine an artist brave enough these days to depict their battle with drug addiction like Brett Whiteley did in his 1978 winning self-portrait.

Q. In danger of being dwarfed by the hype, is that part of the fun? Or should the rules be changed or the award be killed off altogether?

The gallery's former head curator of Australian art, Barry Pearce, said the portrait prize had faced the axe in the past "because it's amateur hour and has nothing to do with being a professional art museum".

Yet the president of the Art Gallery of NSW’s board of trustees, Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, reckons this levity reflects the relaxed nature of Australian society.

“We’re curious. We’re very social,” he says. “We’re more accepting of people. We’re amused by it. We don’t mind taking the mickey. That’s one of the things that others cultures don’t have to their disadvantage – the capacity to take the mickey out of themselves.”

There are plenty of reasons to criticise the Archibald Prize – the rushed judging process which encourages gimmicky entries, huge number of mediocre entries, its scope limited to paintings – yet what gallery director would kill a popular cash cow?