No Longer Rivals. Art and Sport and the Basil Sellers Art Prize—
It’s fair to say that, prior to the launch of the inaugural Basil Sellers Art Prize at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in 2008,
the idea of a new ‘art and sport’ prize was treated in the Australian art world with some scepticism, if not, more generously, with a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach. Aware of the general perceptions that would inevitably arise around such an initiative – which conversely highlighted the very chasm between art and sport that the Prize sought to address – the Museum’s then director, Dr Chris McAuliffe, and the Prize’s namesake and benefactor, Basil Sellers AM, thought long and hard about how this new Prize could make both its mark and a difference in a landscape replete with a variety of art prizes.
The significant prize amount of $100,000 – intended to make a difference to the recipient’s life and career – was certainly
a good place to start, as were the decisions to financially support the shortlisted artists to create ambitious new works for the exhibition and to allow them a 12-month timeframe in which to do so. However, it was the calibre and depth of the art itself – evident from that first exhibition – that ultimately cemented the Prize’s standing. Perhaps surprisingly at the time, the sense of engagement and integrity evident in the work of many of the participating artists revealed that, for them, the gap between art and sport was never so vast. Indeed, for some, the opportunity to create work around the theme of sport enabled them to address a number of society’s most pertinent issues, while others were able (possibly for the first time) to confidently reveal their personal involvement in and love of a particular sporting code and the qualities this involvement brought to both their life and work.
Parallels can easily be drawn between the life of the artist and the sportsperson. Both experience success and failure, triumphs and disappointments; and to succeed, each needs to train and to bring to their work a sense of discipline, dedication and commitment. Yet one of the lingering differences between the art and sporting worlds is the art world’s discomfort with the notion of ‘winning’ and with the necessity, in a prize context, of the singling out of one artist at the expense of others. But as Nick Mitzevich, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, has commented, this is why art prizes succeed in registering with the broader public
(something a majority of art museums contemplate and aspire to) and why, correspondingly, art prizes are generally well attended. It’s in the context of the prize that art and sport are most alike:
The art prize is the art world occurrence that best resembles sport – there’s a triumphant winner, debates about the rules, plenty of media speculation and a spirit of competition.
Most importantly, these factors lead to a culture of armchair spectatorship where even those who rarely comment on art have something to say.1
Art may well lead sport in its ability (and willingness) to provide a platform from which we can both highlight and discuss some of our nation’s most challenging issues, yet there can be no doubt that sport has come a long way in this regard in the last 10 years. The recent establishment and extraordinary success of the inaugural season of the AFL Women’s competition, for example, would have been almost inconceivable at the commencement of the Basil Sellers Art Prize, and there is no doubt that the attendant discourse around the participation of women in sport, the presence and representation of sportswomen in the media, agitation around pay equity and the ongoing discussion about (and, indeed, ‘calling out’ of) the prevailing sexism within many sporting codes have amplified over the last 10 years, providing an ever-present backdrop and, finally, impetus that has resulted in lasting change.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the sports arena continues to provide a wealth of material for the media, social analysts and, indeed, artists – both the highs of wins, skills prowess, demonstrations of the power and importance of the team and displays of grace and sportsmanship, and the very public lows of drug scandals, sexual assaults, racism, sexism and generally unedifying behaviour on behalf of our sporting stars (primarily young men) and some of the administrations that support them. As a barometer of cultural change seen through the lens of sport and sporting culture, the Basil Sellers Art Prize has, over the last 10 years, acted as a fascinating marker of
1. Nick Mitzevich, ‘The turbulent world of the art prize’, InDaily, http://indaily.com.au/opinion/2016/06/30/the-turbulent- world-of-the-art-prize/; accessed 11 July 2016.
‘Parallels can easily be drawn between the life of the artist and the sportsperson. Both experience success and failure, triumphs and disappointments; and to succeed, each needs to train and to bring to their work a sense of discipline, dedication and commitment.’
the attendant shifts in attitude around race, gender, ethics and equity, and of expectations about participant behaviour (of sportspeople and commentators alike, both on and off the field) that have developed as the decade has unfolded.
While perpetuation of the art vs sport debate continues to provide good media fodder – built on a constantly reinforced notion of diametrically opposing sides (recall, for example, the substantial coverage of artist Ben Quilty’s questioning of government funding of the Australian Institute of Sport which sees its students, unlike those undertaking any other form of education in the country, exempt from paying HECS2) – over time, the artists and curators who shaped the Basil Sellers
Art Prize mindfully shifted this perception of difference within the art world, creating a wider understanding and acknowledgement of the similarities between art and sport, and a growing appreciation of what an active dialogue between the two could in fact reveal. As the enthusiastic interest of the institutions participating in this national tour attests, the increasing presence and embrace of sport within the art world through the Basil Sellers Art Prize has also seen a growing number of exhibitions exploring sport and art in recent years.3 The $50,000 National Sports Museum Basil Sellers Creative Arts Fellowship echoed this embrace, though inversely, by inserting art into the sporting world through its encouragement of the creation and presence of art about sport at the MCG, Melbourne’s iconic heartland of sporting culture.4
The end of the Prize at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in
2016, which was the culmination of a 10-year project and commitment on behalf of its benefactor, Basil Sellers AM,
has seen a thematic exhibition that was once a lone voice proudly exit a vastly changed landscape. May both our artists and audiences continue to reap the benefits of the coming together of art and sport. As a combined force, art and
sport have a lot to say and to contribute to our sense and understanding of Australia as a nation and who we believe and hope ourselves to be.
This essay is an updated version of Kelly Gellatly, ‘A Decade of the Basil Sellers Art Prize’, in Basil Sellers Art Prize 5, the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2016, http:// www.art-museum.unimelb.edu.au/assets/files/general/ BSAP5Catalogue200716-1469149156.pdf.
2. See Ben Quilty, ‘Free ride for sports just not equitable’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 February 2013, http://www.smh. com.au/comment/free-ride-for-sports-just-not-equitable- 20130227-2f6c6.html; accessed 1 November 2017. HECS is the abbreviation for the Australian Government’s Higher Education Contributions Scheme.
3. Over the course of the five biennial Basil Sellers Art Prizes (2008–16), other exhibitions about sport have included: Sporting Life, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2000 (an official event in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival); The Art of Football, The Art Vault, Mildura, Victoria, 2016; Leather Poisoning: Football Possession, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne, 2017 and Win, Lose, Draw – art and sport, Parliament House, Canberra, 2016–17. In anticipation of this national tour, the Basil Sellers Art Prize
3 travelled to the Arts Centre Gold Coast, Queensland, in 2013 and the Basil Sellers Art Prize 4 was seen in Adelaide at the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia in 2015.
4. Launched in 2009 and managed by the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC), the National Sports Museum Basil Sellers Creative Arts Fellowship was designed to increase public appreciation and understanding of Australia’s sporting heritage and provided contemporary artists with a unique opportunity to engage with the fabric of Australia’s sporting culture through the collections in the care of the National Sports Museum at the MCG. Fellows were selected from the shortlisted artists of the Basil Sellers Art Prize and included Kate Daw and Stewart Russell (2008), Ponch Hawkes (2010), Louise Hearman (2013), Khaled Sabsabi (2014) and Vipoo Srivilasa (2016).