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At 58, Maureen Gruben is the oldest person on the 2021 Sobey long list.Handout

Not long after my 40th birthday, I published my first novel. The reviews were generally positive but one made me groan: The reviewer suggested the book was a “promising” debut by a writer from whom one might expect more in the future. It had taken me eight years to research, write, rewrite, edit and publish my book and here was someone telling me that if I did that several more times with better results I might perhaps be considered a novelist.

Promising, emerging, developing … these are difficult words in the arts, where every critic wants to unveil a fresh discovery and every prize committee wants to launch a newcomer. In reality, careers can take decades of unsung labour to build. How do you judge where someone is on the trajectory from neophyte to veteran? The traditional approach to helping creators at the beginning of their careers has tied their development to their age: You offer an award for the best artists under 40 or grants available to those 35 and younger.

Today, several institutions are questioning that approach. In January, the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers dropped its 35-and-under age requirement. The prize for poetry and short fiction honours Kingston poet and writer Bronwen Wallace, who first published at 35 and died at age 44 in 1989. Then in February, the Sobey Art Award, a national prize also aimed at emerging artists, removed its 40-and-under cap.

Obviously age restrictions discriminate against late bloomers but perhaps they also discriminate more insidiously against anyone in a group that has been historically disadvantaged. That certainly was the message received by the Writers’ Trust as it rethought the Wallace Award after 150 writers petitioned for the change in an open letter. They said the age cap discriminated against BIPOC, LGBTQ and disabled writers.

“It’s great that there are supports for emerging writers, but I’ve always thought that this notion of emerging attached to a specific age is just not the way writers work,” writer and award jurist Carrianne Leung told The Globe and Mail after the change was announced. “A lot of racialized writers, mostly women, are so relieved when they feel like they can be supported as emerging writers at older ages.”

The National Gallery of Canada, which administers the Sobey, was more general in its reasoning but also said it was responding to concerns raised by artists in what had been a particularly difficult year. The Wallace Award finalists will not be announced until later this month, but if you look at the Sobey long list that was unveiled Wednesday, you get a clear picture of change: A third of the 25 artists named are in their 40s or 50s. From Atlantic Canada, there’s the 51-year-old Glenn Gear, a Newfoundlander of Inuit heritage who now lives in Montreal. From Quebec, Montreal artist Lorna Bauer is still in the running at age 41. Tanya Lukin Linklater is an Indigenous artist from Ontario who is 45; Andrea Oliver Roberts is a 42-year-old from Winnipeg; Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory is a 42-year-old performance artist based in Iqaluit; Julian Yi-Jong Hou is 41 and lives in Vancouver, as does 55-year-old T’uy’t’anat-Cease Wyss.

Removing the age requirement may also help the Sobey Award draw stronger regional representation. Canada’s young visual artists tend to be concentrated in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, but the long list and short list are drawn equally from five regions (Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Prairies and the North, and West Coast and Yukon). The results have sometimes felt lopsided, with visibly stronger entries from the big cities, and heavy hitters from Ontario and Quebec taking the final prize in many years. Another reason given for removing the 40-and-under rule was the recognition that artists outside those major centres often have fewer opportunities to show their work.

There are potential disadvantages to the change. Over time, the Sobey, which is one of the richest visual arts prizes in the world with a top award of $100,000, could simply become a career prize as well-established fortysomethings beat out younger artists. The Bronwen Wallace Award has a distinct advantage here: It recognizes writers of poetry and short fiction who have published in magazines or anthologies but not yet in book form. It would be hard to come up with an equivalent way of defining “emerging” in the visual arts.

The success of these changes will have to be judged over some years. In the meantime, here’s to Maureen Gruben, who at 58 is the oldest person on the 2021 Sobey long list. An Inuvialuk artist based in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, Gruben creates compelling sculptures that combine traditional and contemporary materials. She has exhibited widely, including work in the National Gallery’s major 2019-20 Indigenous show Abadakone. Still emerging? Perhaps, but please don’t call her promising.

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