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Sasha Suda, director of the National Gallery of Canada, says the decision to drop the age requirement for the Sobey Art Award was a response to previous requests from artists and a recognition of difficult times.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s most lucrative art prize is removing any age limit while raising the purse for those on its long list. The Sobey Art Foundation and the National Gallery of Canada announced Wednesday that the Sobey Art Award will now be open to emerging artists of all ages, without requiring candidates to be 40 or younger.

Twenty long-listed candidates will receive $10,000 each, an increase from $2,000. This brings the total purse to $400,000 from $240,000. The first prize will remain $100,000 while the four other finalists on the short list will still receive $25,000.

Established by the Sobey Art Foundation in 2002 and co-administered by the National Gallery, the award recognizes five emerging artists from five regions with its jury then selecting a single winner. The decision to drop the age requirement was a response to previous requests from artists and a recognition of difficult times, National Gallery director Sasha Suda said in a statement.

“It’s been a very hard time for artists across the country this year. The continuing pandemic has been a huge challenge, and we want Canadian artists to know we are listening – because the Sobey Art Award represents hope,” she said.

Bernard Doucet, Sobey Art Foundation secretary, added that artists in large urban centres have more exhibition opportunities than those in other regions, saying the aim was “to stand out as the world’s most inclusive critical art award.”

The move is part of a debate in the arts over the wisdom of age restrictions on awards for “emerging” artists; some argue the term denotes a career level rather than a stage of life, and that artists in disadvantaged groups may begin their careers later. For example, last month the Writers’ Trust of Canada dropped the 35-and-under requirement for the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, after the publishing community complained marginalized writers had difficulties establishing careers that young.

The National Gallery plans to unveil the 2021 Sobey exhibition of the five finalists’ work as usual this fall. (For 2020, the full Sobey Award budget was divided among 25 finalists with no further winners nor exhibition.) The gallery has been closed since December but reopens Thursday as Ottawa moves into Ontario’s orange category.

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