Artist remains unrepentant for judging prestigious prize by tossing a coin

Leading indigenous artist says that awards like John Sulman Prize are not about art

The winning painting, "The Artist’s Fate", was chosen by Richard Bell

SYDNEY. Richard Bell, one of Australia’s best-known indigenous contemporary artists, has defended his method for judging the Sir John Sulman Prize for subject, genre or mural painting—the toss of a coin.

Within days of artist Peter Smeeth being awarded the A$20,000 (£13,000) prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in April, Sydney’s newspapers got wind of Bell’s unorthodox criteria. But while there was outrage among some of the finalists, Bell remains unrepentant.

“Most artists know what these prizes are about,” he told The Art Newspaper. “They’ve got very little to do with art and much more to do with the institution.”

Of the 29 finalists Bell selected from 633 entries, more than 20 depicted animals. “I like animals,” the artist said. “I was going to make that the sole criterion but I had to choose some of my friends.”

Bell then took eight pieces of paper and wrote the names of four artists he is friends with on half of them, and two artists whose work he liked and two artists whose work he didn’t like on the others. He scattered the pieces of paper on the floor and tossed a coin. It landed on the slip with Smeeth’s name on it.

Smeeth, whose winning entry was a self-portrait titled The Artist’s Fate, 2011, said that while he was initially “nonplussed”, on reflection he is now happy. “I’ve got the prize and the publicity,” he said. “Every person who judges an art show brings their own agenda to it, same as a cattle show.”

Bell made no attempt to hide his selection method, happily telling the finalists about it at the party on the night of the prize-giving.

Finalists Ken and Julia Yonetani of Katoomba are seeing the funny side. “Apparently our names were on the floor in the last eight,” said Julia Yonetani. “The coin could have been tossed our way.”

Bell is no stranger to controversy. When he won the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2003, he turned up at the ceremony wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “White Girls Can’t Hump”. His winning painting carried the slogan, “Aboriginal Art—It’s a White Thing”.

Asked if he expects to judge any more prizes, Bell told us: “I’ve got my darts ready.”

The Sulman prize is one of Australia’s oldest, established in 1936, for works made in the preceding two years.

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9 Jun 11
15:15 CET


The judging of the Sulman is entirely the Judges responsibility. Clearly he was not told how to judge or by what criteria, so he can hardly blame the Trustees. The outcome will reduce numbers entered next year (unless the judge has lots of friends).

9 Jun 11
5:19 CET


Wow!!! What happened to quality, design, technique, creativity, composition, talent etc.... It's a disgrace to think that as an artist your work has been selected through a flip of the coin or by just being a friend, you're better off not participating! As in all businesses there should be quality control and art definitely needs standards, who are in control of selecting the jurors? What and where is your criteria!!!

3 Jun 11
18:41 CET


i have won art prizes and ive not been selected for prizes. In the end, each judge has their own agenda, alliances, beliefs and thats how i console myself when i get rejected. Bell is only making obvious what all artists know already. How can you judge one work more successful than another. Yet as an artist with no income from my work the need to enter such prizes is on the agenda much the same as the weekly lottery ticket.

3 Jun 11
18:41 CET


I am proved right again! As soon as I entered the art world I realized the truth that there is little difference between "the best art works" and "not so good ones". We discussed this topic on my network too. Best artists and art works?! It is just an illusion! Each and every piece of art is good in my opinion and these competitions and awards are just money spinners for the organisers!

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