It was fifteen years ago that business magnate and philanthropist Donald Sobey first brought his idea of sponsoring an art prize to Pierre Théberge, then-Director of the National Gallery of Canada. At the time, Sobey was Chairman of the Gallery’s Board of Trustees, and fast gaining an education in contemporary art. Théberge responded enthusiastically to the proposition, and over the next few months worked with Sobey to develop a plan, including the target group (Canadian artists ages 40 and under), the value of the prizes (originally totalling $70,000), and the choice of organizing institution: the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS).
Now, as the Sobey Art Foundation seeks to expand its national and international influence, the Sobey Art Award is moving to the National Gallery.
Bernard Doucet, Rob Sobey, Donald Sobey, and 2007 Sobey Art Award winner Michel de Broin, in front of his monumental sculpture Majestic, located on Nepean Point behind the National Gallery (2011)
Rob Sobey, Donald’s son and Chair of the Sobey Art Foundation, which funds the Award, explained the move as the “logical next step” in the process of building what has become Canada’s most significant contemporary art prize. On the phone from Halifax, Nova Scotia, he said, “We have such a great relationship with our founding partner, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. It was through them that we were really able to gain some traction.”
Moving the prize to a national institution will help the Foundation achieve one of its fundamental goals: spreading support for contemporary art across the country. “Through our national mandate, we hope to strengthen public awareness of the Award,” he said. “We hope to bring in enhanced programming and build new audiences for Canadian art. We think we can leverage the National Gallery’s relationships to build the appeal of Canadian artists, and amplify the conversation around the world.”
2013 Sobey Art Award gala ceremony, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the AGNS
In Ottawa, the National Gallery’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, Josée Drouin-Brisebois, echoed Sobey’s sentiments. “This is a wonderful opportunity,” she said in an interview. “The Sobey Art Award is well known in Canada, but not so much outside of the country. So I think that working with the National Gallery will help tremendously in terms of creating more of a profile for these artists.”
The National Gallery will take over all the logistical tasks from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia: putting out the call for nominations, organizing the jury process, mounting an exhibition of shortlisted works, and hosting a gala awards ceremony. Many of the details will stay the same, including timeline and regional representation (longlisted and shortlisted artists are chosen from all five Canadian regions). Changes include the addition of an international juror and enhanced educational programming. “The other opportunity we have,” adds Drouin-Brisebois, “is to really showcase the work of these Canadian artists in our wonderful exhibition spaces.”
2013 winner Duane Linklater, standing before Tautology (detail), 2011–2013, his suite of five neon sculptures depicting the thunderbird, on display as part of the Sobey Art Award 2013 Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the AGNS
Meanwhile, the Sobey Art Foundation will continue to fund the Award, and to oversee its governance on a broad level. “Every now and again we take a temperature check,” says Rob Sobey, “to see what’s working and what isn’t.”
The Sobey family has a distinguished history of philanthropy, not only in the area of art, but also in health, education and community support. The family established both the Sobey Foundation and Sobey Art Foundation in 1982, and has been a longstanding and generous patron of the National Gallery.
The Sobey Art Award is now worth a total of $100,000: $50,000 goes to the first-place winner, $10,000 to each of the runners-up, and $500 to each of the remaining longlisted artists. Under the able stewardship of Ray Cronin, former Director of the AGNS, and Sarah Fillmore, its Chief Curator, the award has grown in importance since the first Sobey Art Award was presented in 2002. Past winners include Brian Jungen, Annie Pootoogook, Michel de Broin, David Altmejd, Nadia Myre, and most recently, Toronto-based Abbas Akhavan.
Abbas Akhavan, Fatigues (2014), taxidermy white-tailed deer. Photo: Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the AGNS
The Iranian-born Akhavan works in a variety of media, exploring notions of hospitality and hostility in environments related to the domestic sphere. His work Fatigues (2014), installed for the Sobey Award exhibition at the AGNS, and previously shown at the Montreal Biennale, features stuffed and mounted animals scattered throughout the gallery space. All victims of human contact, they include birds killed in collisions with skyscrapers, a hunted deer, and a fox hit by a car.
Akhavan can expect to see a fuller inbox over the coming months, as the award is quite a career-booster. Even the long list, according to Rob Sobey, has become “the annual shopping list for folks interested in contemporary art.”
Daniel Young and Christian Giroux, Every Building, or Site, that a Building Permit was Issued for a New Building in Toronto in 2006 (2008), NGC
For Daniel Young, who shared the 2011 award with collaborator Christian Giroux, one of the great benefits of the prize is its ability to instigate so much dialogue about art at a national level, primarily because of the regional emphasis. “Having the attention, the recognition of winning an award, with so many fantastic artists who have won it, is really nice,” he said on the phone from Berlin, where he spends half the year. “But it’s been most interesting in terms of generating cross-regional dialogue.”
Visitors to the National Gallery can look forward to witnessing the continued dialogue among Canada’s brightest and most inventive artists.
Visit gallery.ca/sobey for more about the Sobey Art Award in the months to come, including the announcement of longlisted and shortlisted artists this spring, and first place winner at the Gala on November 1, 2016. The exhibition highlighting the finalists’ work will open at the National Gallery of Canada on October 6, 2016.
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