History of the Alice Prize
The Alice Prize and the Alice Springs Art Foundation were set up in 1970 to bring contemporary art from across Australia to Alice Springs for the benefit of its isolated, arts-hungry residents. The first exhibition was held on 3 October 1970 at Rumball Hall, a rusting corrugated iron shed in the old showgrounds. There were 207 entries, all brought to the Centre for free by Ansett Airlines – Reg Ansett was a friend of Bernie Kilgariff, Founding President of the Alice Springs Art Foundation. The first Prize was $2000, awarded to the best artwork in any medium on any subject. It was a non-acquisitive prize, and the exhibition was hung on hundreds of metres of hessian, organised by volunteers and had the patronage of then-Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck.
Nearly 50 years later, the Prize has become one of Australia’s oldest and most prestigious regional contemporary art prizes, and its collection of works, comprising winners and other acquisitions, is substantial. It is now a biennial acquisitive Prize based at the Araluen Arts Centre, which was built in 1984 after energetic lobbying from the Art Foundation and others wanting a more distinguished venue and a professional storage facility for the growing Central Australian arts collections. The Alice Prize collection is a notable part of the Araluen collection and is drawn on frequently for exhibitions. By 2018 and the 40th Prize, the award was lifted to $40,000 to celebrate the occasion and attracted 575 entries from across Australia.
For its first 30 years, the Prize was run annually, funded through sponsorships and active fundraising. By 2000, exhausted volunteers were considering finishing up the Prize, when an unexpected major bequest was given by the Kingsley family, related to a previous Foundation volunteer. The bequest was invested, and the interest from that investment, in combination with making the Prize a biennial event, ongoing sponsorship and fundraising efforts, allowed the Prize to survive at least another 20 years.
What hasn’t changed is that the Prize is still run by dedicated volunteers and is still awarded to the best artwork in any medium; since 2001, the Prize has been awarded to two videos, a textile , two photographs, a screen print, a work on burnt timber boards, and six paintings. In 2012, a performance artist was shortlisted for exhibition. In the same year, Nick Mitzevich, then-Director of the Art Gallery of SA, awarded the Alice Prize to Yukulti Napangati, an artist from WA who is also known as one of the ‘Pintupi Nine’ or ‘lost tribe’ who emerged from the desert in 1984. The Alice Prize award was a remarkable juxtaposition of the traditional becoming contemporary.
Since its beginning, the Prize has been judged by leading figures of the Australian art world, Directors of national and state galleries, prominent citizens and art writers. It is even beginning to span generations, with Alan McCulloch judging the prize in 1972, and his daughter Susan judging the Prize in 2008.
The prize-winner is not always a popular or critical choice; in 1970, the reviewer Ivor Francis stated: “How the judges saw equal merit in Tom Gleghorn’s abstract-expressionist ‘Down the Track from Darwin’ and James Meldrum’s cubico-futurist ‘Equivocal Construction’ is beyond comprehension. You might as easily try to compare Mary’s sewing with Mabel’s cooking” (Sunday Mail Magazine, 1970). In 2008, Alice Springs News art critic Kieran Finnane applauded the Judge’s choice, but queried the inclusion of underdeveloped artists in the exhibition (Art Monthly October 2008 pp 14-16.) This was not a new criticism – in 1984 James Mollison, Director of the National Gallery of Australia, refused to award the Prize, as he did not consider the works good or mature enough. He was invited back the following year, and having changed his mind about the quality of the works, awarded the Alice Prize to Gary Carsley, now an internationally renowned artist, curator and educator.
The works of the first prizewinners almost passed into history. The Meldrum work was located and acquired in the 80s, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the Foundation received a call from a man asking if the Foundation would like the first Alice Prize winner back – his mother had bought it sometime in the 70s in Adelaide. By 2008, the Gleghorn work was back in Alice Springs, and hanging proudly at Araluen as part of the celebrations for the 2010 Alice Prize.
The longevity of the Prize means that the resulting collection reflects major shifts in Australian contemporary art. In particular, works by Aboriginal artists were first exhibited in 1974; early critics thought it odd to hang ‘Aranda’ art alongside contemporary art. Then Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri won the Prize in 1983, highlighting the growing prominence of Aboriginal painters in Australian contemporary art. Winning the Prize in 1992 was a breakthrough for Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, who later became the first Aboriginal artist to have a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria.
It is a matter of pride for the Alice Springs Art Foundation that the Prize began as a way to bring contemporary art to the Centre, inspired by what Bernie Kilgariff called “the fantastically high interest and deep appreciation of art by the people in this Live Centre” (Webb, M, 2004, The Alice Prize 1970-2004, unpub), and that 50 years later, Australian contemporary art has come to be defined by much of what comes out of the Centre, and that the Alice Prize has had a part to play in that revolution.