Why the Bennett Prize?

by Steven Bennett | 06.02.20

When we began our collection many years ago, women artists were underrepresented in galleries and museums, their work was significantly less expensive than work by men (assuming you could find it at all) and the collecting community had not yet caught on to the fact that there was substantial, collectible work by women available in abundance. As a class, women artists were being ignored. As I have said many times, “the Guerilla Girls were right!” Knowing this, the Doc and I quickly became convinced that we could build an extraordinary collection while at the same time helping working women artists, by limiting our collection to the work of women painters. Thus, the first prong of our collecting focus came to be—paintings by women.

In addition to the issues with women, we initially had trouble finding realist work, paintings that looked like something identifiable. What was on the gallery walls generally lacked sufficient visual content to be grasped in real terms. But, we liked and wanted to look at something that resonated with us on a “real” level. This then became the second thrust of our collecting efforts—figurative realism—the realistic depiction of human beings. And, when we combined our two interests, women painters and figurative realism, we found generations of undiscovered artists with substantial things to say about human differences and commonalities, such as race, gender, social status and the plethora of issues, both global and personal, that confront humanity.

But, as collectors, the Doc and I were never willing to simply collect objects. For us, collecting is also a human pursuit. Beyond the paint on the canvas are the creators, human beings with emotions, needs, thoughts and desires. Just like us. And, as we got deeper into collecting, we wanted to know these women and what made them put themselves “out there.” That then became a whole additional, call it an “adjunct,” endeavor. So, we began getting to know these women art creators. What we discovered was both encouraging and, at the same time, dismaying.

Many of the women artists we met, at openings and during studio visits, were often struggling personally. Single moms raising kids, holding down “day jobs” and trying to paint after the kids went to bed were not the exception, they were the norm. Just as difficult, there was the biting lack of recognition. Most women realist painters found themselves begging someone, anyone, to recognize what they were doing as valid and valuable. For every big name woman getting $50K a pop for their paintings (and, in those days, you could count these artists on either your fingers or your toes, you didn’t need both), there were hundreds, probably thousands of women laboring in obscurity, practically giving away their work just so they could feel good that someone was, maybe, looking at it.

This, of course, generated discussion between Dr. Schmidt and me. A lot of it. How do we help these women? Our visits illuminated for us the struggle that existed for women painters, and presented us with a dilemma: is the best way to promote women realists to simply collect their work? Or, was there a way to showcase these women and introduce a new generation of people to women painters and the figurative realist genre that went beyond simply being collectors?

Over the course of several years we pondered a variety of ideas: workshops, mentorship programs, partnering with galleries to promote women realists, supporting art schools and programs that focused on women and realism. In the end, we decided that funding a national prize with a juried competition and an associated exhibition of the finalists’ work was a great place to focus. We could feature a significant group of women and broadcast their work while introducing a new generation to the joys of figurative realism. In addition, by making enough money available to the winner to offset at least some of her living expenses, we could enable her to create sufficient work for a subsequent traveling solo show dedicated to showcasing her abilities. In doing so, perhaps we could launch or, better stated, “propel” these women to more advanced places in their career journeys.

We realize this is not the only nor, necessarily, the best way to help women painters. But it is our way. We made a series of choices and decided to follow through on them, recognizing that, as the saying goes, to select one path was to reject or, at least, not choose, all the other paths. We hope that we are helping. But it is early and there is much to do. Now, we hope that we can get women realist painters the additional recognition, representation and compensation they deserve and do so before we run out of life.

WHAT’S ON YOUR EASEL?

Header Image: by Katie O’Hagan, “Alteration”, Oil on Linen, 64″ x 54″

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