The Nation’s most famous art prize The Archibald has returned to Ballarat and this will be cause for some celebration. While aficionados will disparage the ever-popular portrait prize for its unadventurous spirit and fixation with celebrities, it cannot be denied that the energy it generates among a wider audience has got to be a good thing for Ballarat and for art.
Last year’s exhibition saw more than 50,000 visitors pass through the doors of the Ballarat Gallery. Even taking the slightly malleable figure of flow-on expenditure used officially of $102 spent by each visitor this could conservatively be converted to multi-million bonus for the city and its hospitality outlets.
Perhaps on a more aesthetic level it must also be obvious that a reasonable portion of this number of patrons would be local and a few of these may have rarely, if ever, stepped inside the gallery. Anything that motivates residents to realise what a fabulous asset we have on Lydiard Street has a revelatory merit. Who knows that first visit could be the germ that sows a lifetime of love and inspiration in pictorial art. Whether you love art or not, portraits inspire people just as personalities do.
There is the excitement that the Archibald Prize brings on its regional tours knowing it has the sheer vitality of people flocking to art. Take for instance the anticipation among even our budding artists of the future. More than three thousand school children diligently filled in the templates for the Young Archies competition. While the official winner will be announced tonight, The Courier’s own People’s Choice Award saw a staggering response; more than half a million page views of the 300 finalists’ pictures and more than four thousand individual votes.
But event exhibitions spread a ring of excitement a lot wider than local primary schools. The NGV in Melbourne, itself the possessor of a world class collection, has turned its winter masterpieces into one of the highlights of the year. Bendigo has shown repeatedly that catch the popular appeal with an exhibition and people will make the city a destination, transforming a whole precinct. It is also worth recalling Bendigo gallery’s popular surge began with the Archibalds.
While this will be the last visitation of the Archibald Prize to Ballarat there is no reason why with careful planning, support and a little vision it can’t be the start of a reputation-defining series of art events.