There’s been an explosion of visual-arts awards in Canada in the last few years, so the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, marking its 15th anniversary this fall, can pride itself on being one of the older kids on the block. This year’s winner and two runners-up, chosen by a nine-member jury of curators, dealers, artists and critics, are to be named Oct. 2 at a gala in the National Gallery in Ottawa.
The prize actually started in 1998 as the Canadian Emerging Artist Prize, with a focus on Toronto artists, co-sponsored by Connor Clark Private Trust and the Canadian Art Foundation, publisher of Canadian Art magazine. The competition began its march to its current incarnation as a national prize the next year when RBC Investments purchased Connor Clark and, as part of the deal, agreed to continue the prize as the RBC Canadian Painting Competition. For its first two years under RBC auspices, though, the prize was open only to Ontario artists.
Since then the competition, while always focused on recognizing young, rising talent, has undergone several tweaks and refinements. Between 2001 and 2003, for instance, there was no overall national winner, as there is now; instead, a laureate was named from each of the three regions RBC divides the country into (Eastern, Central, Western), and awarded $5,000. Then as now, five finalists were selected from each region. In 2005, RBC hiked its top purse to $25,000 from $10,000 while two runners-up each received $15,000 (from $7,000). That money remains the same this year but because it’s the 15th anniversary, the remaining 12 finalists will each receive $5,000, for a total purse of $115,000. As ever, the winning painting and those of the two runners-up becomes part of the bank’s permanent collection, now numbering some 4,000 works.
The Globe and Mail recently asked four previous national winners to reflect on the prize and what it’s meant to their careers:
Montrealer Alexis Lavoie, now 32, participated in the competition in 2010, two years after earning a BFA from the University of Quebec at Montreal. One of more than 600 artists who entered that year’s contest, Lavoie says at the time he wasn’t aware “how big a deal the prize was”; it was only after being named a finalist and travelling to Toronto’s Power Plant for the awards ceremony that “with all the media, I got kind of nervous.”
Today Lavoie works every second weekend as a janitor in a hospital but since taking the RBC he’s been “painting a lot more and working a lot less.” Lavoie used his prize earnings to take a break from working “for a full year to concentrate only on my painting.”
Already represented by gallerists in Montreal and Quebec City when named RBC laureate, Lavoie post-prize proceeded to “get more shows, especially in Quebec, and I sold more work.” (Simon Blais, one of the nine RBC judges in 2010, is now Lavoie’s Montreal dealer after Lavoie’s original gallery folded in 2011) While he still lacks a Toronto dealer (“Quebec, Canada, it’s like two separate worlds, y’know?”), Lavoie participated in a well-received duo show with fellow Montrealer David Lafrance in 2011 at Toronto’s KWT Contemporary and in late 2010, Toronto Life named him “one of 10 artists first-time buyers should invest in now.”
Lavoie admits winning the RBC gave him pause about how to proceed with his art. “That painting that won [Restants], I think it’s a really good painting. But afterwards I thought, ‘Maybe people will now like to see the same thing.’ This was something I had to fight a little bit.” Winning, too, was “stressful” because “I am a bit shy, [but] it did help me feel more confident going through that.”
Jeremy Hof was 30 and just a year out of Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design when he won $25,000 as the top RBC laureate for 2008. Entering the competition had long been a goal not because “I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to win this right after graduation,’ but because it was a really easy application process – it doesn’t cost anything – and there really was nothing to lose.”
Taking the top prize allowed Hof to pay some bills, boost his savings account and take a European vacation. However, its real value was the “validation” it afforded him as an artist. It “heightened my national exposure” and, in its wake, resulted in a “pretty extensive touring schedule,” including exhibitions in eight institutions across the country.