An art prize that encourages critical thinking

Starting from the position of a well curated exhibition, the Wyndham Art Prize expands this year to include a new commission with an environmental narrative, as well as a prize pool of $25,500.

With a five-star rating from the Arts Law Centre of Australia, the Wyndham Art Prize is now in its seventh year. Its curated nature as an exhibition looking at diverse contemporary art practice also helps place the Wyndham Art Prize in a category of its own.

‘At the end of the day, entering any prize is a gamble,’ said Dr Megan Evans, Visual Art Curator, Wyndham Art Gallery. For this reason, the gallery has taken a slightly different approach.

‘The selection of the work is about bringing it together, first and foremost, as an exhibition. Then once the work is in the space, it is really all about the judges,’ Evans explained.

Having been involved in the development and coordination of the Prize, since it was established in 2015, Evans told ArtsHub that she believes it encourages critical thinking.

‘We have a really wonderful culturally and linguistically diverse community here, so we wanted to reflect that in the gallery programming – including the Prize. For the past few years we have had Aboriginal artist and curator Maree Clark working with us, who gave us a lot of agency to centre First Nations artists also,’ she explained.

This is also reflected in the conscious choice to ensure that one of the three independent judges each year is from a First Nations background, with the judges for 2021 being Paola Balla, Ashley Crawford, and David Cross.

Thinking big – both in scale and ideas

The Wyndham Art Prize has the reputation of being a big and inclusive prize. Last year over 70 finalists were shown.

‘It is a generous prize in that way,’ Evans told ArtsHub.

‘We approach it as a fabulous looking exhibition, and for that reason we do not look at the CVs upfront, but rather curate the prize based on the work. That means we often get artists not included in other prizes, or who are just starting out.’

‘We have always taken that position with the gallery, to get behind emerging artists and show them alongside established artists,’ she added.

The Prize is not thematic and accepts entries from all mediums, including (but not limited to) sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, textiles, photography, installation, sound digital, and video.

Evans said the reason for keeping the Prize so open was that artists tend ‘to make work that they would not normally make to comply with a theme, and it sort of becomes artificial – it is not always their best work.’

Wyndham Art Prize 2019 Winner, Welcome to Country by wāni Le Frere. Video. Courtesy the artist.

Last year, the early days of lockdown saw the Wyndham Art Prize being one of the first to pivot online. ‘We were in the first wave of digital exhibitions going ahead,’ said Evans. ‘Back then we couldn’t accept artworks so we digitally mocked up images of the finalists in Photoshop to hang in the space – it was absolutely crazy.’

While the exhibition is planned to be opened to the public this year, the Prize will again be presented virtually for 2021 – but this time as a video tour of the works in the space.

Evans said that, particularly with the pandemic, ‘it has been really important to find whatever ways we can to support artists.’

Another new change for 2021 is that the gallery’s long relationship with the Werribee sewage treatment plant – which services greater Melbourne – will shift from an on-site residency to a new prize. 

The $5,000 TREAT Prize will be awarded as a commission to an artist to work on a socially engaged artwork within the Wyndham Community. 

Wyndham City Council and the gallery took the ambitious step of creating the residency in 2015, in partnership with Deakin University and Melbourne Water, in order to help shift the perception of Werribee and explore environmental narratives.

The treatment ponds are a vast wetland, home to numerous bird species, and almost the size of Phillip Island. The TREAT Prize winner will work with the research initiative, the Public Art Commission  from Deakin University.

Key Details

  • Call for Entries: close 21 February 2021
  • All finalists notified by: 16 March 2021
  • Prize announcement:  13 May 2021
  • Finalist Exhibition: 13 May – 27 June 2021

Four monetary prizes are available:

  • Wyndham Art Prize: $12,000 non-acquisitive
  • Local Emerging Art Prize: $5,000 acquisitive
  • People’s Choice Award: $2,500 prize sponsored by Arts Assist
  • TREAT – A Socially Engaged Art prize of $5,000

Learn how you can apply to the Wyndham Art Prize. 

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