by SEANNA CRONIN

If you were asked to reflect on the past year and then put brush to canvas, what would you create?

More than 400 artists have done just that in their submissions to this year’s Sunshine Coast Art Prize.

Now in its 16th year, this significant art award is not only the flagship event for the Caloundra Regional Gallery but a sign that the Coast’s culture and arts scene has come of age.

In general, art prizes are developed when a community gets to a point where it gets some confidence that it can compete on the arts scene,” Arts Portfolio councillor Rick Baberowski tells the Sunny Coast Times.

“You have to essentially formulate an offer to artists outside your region to submit their works. About 16 years ago, the Sunshine Coast region got to that point where they were curating exhibitions regularly in the gallery and we really needed to say, ‘OK, how do we inspire our local artists by putting on exhibitions that already represent what we hope will be the cutting edge of contemporary art at that time?’”

Beyond serving as a showcase for 2D artists across Australia, the art prize is also an important source of new pieces for the Sunshine Coast Art Collection.

“Acquisition is great way to build your collection and a lovely way to secure an artist you wouldn’t be able to afford,” says gallery director Jo Duke. 

“We don’t have a budget for the collection, so we build it through donations and this award. For a lot of regional centres, this is big part of finding ways to secure works that will be significant and important down the track.

“Raquel Ormella’s FIFO work from the 2017 prize, which was a really controversial textile piece, has been out on loan several times since we acquired it.”

This is Ms Duke’s second year at the gallery after serving as curator and manager of the Gladstone Regional Art Gallery and Museum. 

“When I moved to the Coast the first exhibition that I came to was the Sunshine Coast Art Prize announcement in 2019, which was a wonderful way to come into my job,” she says.

The Ipswich native, who has nearly 30 years of experience in leading institutions including the Queensland Art Gallery and the National Museum of Australia, was no stranger to the Coast. 

“My grandmother lived in Caloundra from the ’70s and we used to come here every Christmas for about 15 years until she passed,” she says. “You always think ‘I’m going to retire to the beach’. I’m getting to do something I love and be near the beach.”

Six local artists are among this year’s 40 finalists vying for the major prize of $25,000.

“Prizes, particularly at this point in time, are a really important way for artists to get exposure,” Ms Duke says. “A lot of galleries have been closed down south (due to Covid) and this is a way of building a profile and perhaps winning a prize.

“With the borders closed at the moment, it’s our local and Queensland-based audiences we want to get on to the floor to see the show.”

The prize also includes Highly Commended and People’s Choice awards, and an artist residency. 

“The residency is important not only to give the artists a bit of room to work in a new space and area, but we also get them to do a workshop for us, which gives our local art lovers a chance to work alongside that artist,” Ms Duke says. “Since Covid, we’ve also starting doing an In Conversation series through our Facebook page.”

She describes this year’s art prize exhibition, now on display both at the gallery and online, as a surprisingly harmonious mix of styles and mediums.

“Considering these are works from 40 different voices, it’s a really coherent show,” she says. 

“The works are really colourful, which is nice. In 2019 it was a bit darker, and last year was dark as well, whereas this year it’s full of vibrant colours. It’s also a really interesting mix of genres including abstract, landscapes, really refined photography, a couple of textile pieces, one beautiful toilet paper work and a really exuberant piece of finger knitting.”
There are also plans to tour a retrospective of the prize’s 16-year history. 

“The gallery’s collection curator and I have been chatting about trying to raise funds to tour the previous winners,” Ms Duke says. 

“Last year was the 20th year of our gallery and we showed the 15 major prize winners for the first time together. They work beautifully as a collection.”

The Sunshine Coast Art Prize exhibition is showing until October 10 at Caloundra Regional Gallery.

Voting for the People’s Choice Prize closes on Sunday, September 19. Winners will be announced on September 23. 

For more information go to gallery.sunshinecoast.qld.gov.au.