Local art identity Bob Stephens believes the national capital has been long overdue for the National Capital Art Prize for paintings which he launched last week to inspire artists around Australia but also shift the perception of Canberra.
"At the end of the day, this is focusing Canberra as an art capital as well as a political capital. And I think this is what we need to start doing with Canberra," Mr Stephens said.
"We have some amazing people involved in the arts here, whether in administration or as practitioners. It puts Canberra on the map as a serious art capital and we should be taken seriously."
Mr Stephens, who has owned the Aarwun Gallery in Gold Creek for 22 years, proudly "part of the cultural fabric of Canberra", also wanted an independent, national art prize that could be a lifeline to artist struggling in the wake of COVID.
"It's just something Canberra should have had and never has had. We have the National Portrait Prize but we don't have anything else in Canberra that the whole nation can be involved in," he said.
"There's also the COVID factor where so many artists were doing it tough and this is a way to get things moving again.
"Having had many years in the gallery business, I know how many artists are struggling. So it was a way for us as a gallery to give back to the community, on a nationwide level."
The National Capital Art Prize has a combined prize pool of more than $45,000, with several categories. Mr Stephens said sponsors would cover the costs.
"I've committed to underwriting the whole thing but that's not going to be necessary because we've had some really good sponsors come on board, three or four of them, which we can't announce just yet but who we're really excited about," he said.
And while other prizes focus only on the best portrait or best landscape or best watercolour, the National Capital Art Prize has no restrictions other than it has to be a painting. The prize will be the only art competition in Australia which allows entrants to paint any vision, such as portrait, landscape or abstract, and use any medium including oil, acrylic, watercolour, mixed media, or pencil.
"I did that after talking to a lot of artists," Mr Stephens said, explaining that opening up the prize made sure it presented the opportunity to as many artists as possible.
The National Capital Art Prize comprises a $15,000 open prize, $15,000 First Nations prize for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander artists, $5000 landscape prize, $2500 student prize, $2500 people's choice award and $5000 art scholarship offered in partnership with the Australian National University.
Applications will open on March 30 via the website National Capital Art Prize and close on July 1. Finalists will be announced on August 2 and displayed in a public exhibition in Canberra from September 18, the venue soon to be locked in. All finalists' works will be available for sale, providing another financial boost to the artists.
Mr Stephens, who is organising the prize as an entity separate from his gallery, said the judges would come from Canberra and outside. "They are some very prominent Canberra people, believe me," he said.
Acclaimed Australian artist Wendy Sharpe is among those who have welcomed news of the prize.
"Prizes can make a big difference to an artist's career encouraging both professional and emerging artists," she said.
Mr Stephens hopes the National Capital Art Prize is another step in the evolution of Canberra as a sophisticated city.
"I seriously hope it is. This is something that should have been done a long time ago. We're the nation's capital. We have the National Portrait Prize so why not a major national prize everyone in Australia can be a part of?"
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