This week it was International Women’s Day and in the spirit of celebrating equality in the arts, here is something that I wrote for The Victorian Women’s Lawyer journal at the end of 2016 –
The Portia Geach Memorial Award was established in 1965. The award provides $30,000 in prize money to a female artist ‘for the best portrait painted from life of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, or the sciences.’ Established by Kate Geach in memory of her sister Portia, the annual exhibition and prize celebrates the legacy of Portia’s incredible spirit and vigour for life, social politics, and art. Portia Geach was a progressive woman of her time from an affluent family that granted her the freedom of a bohemian lifestyle as an artist and social activist that she practiced and preached. Namely, Portia Geach painted feverishly throughout her life and consistently hired female chauffeurs to drive her Bruick motorcar.
With status and money behind her, Geach studied at the National Gallery School from 1890 – 1896 soon after which she travelled to the Royal Academy in London where she studied under the tutelage of John Singer Sargent. Although Geach was a prolific artist with exhibiting history in Paris, London, and New York, her work was never acquired by Australian state institutions in her lifetime. The reception of her work among her contemporaries was ultimately a reflection of the time she was living and working in, and equates to her relatively unknown profile in within mainstream Australian art history and a lack of her works in our state galleries and museums.
At the start of the twentieth century, male artists did not have to make the same sacrifices as female artists and were able to choose a career in the arts without a social stigma. Women on the other hand, were bound by the responsibilities of marriage, children, lest they be deemed a social outcast and face the obstacle of living independently. Consequently, for Portia Geach and her female counterparts, it was difficult to have their work accepted by hanging and judging committees where men and their work were received with higher regard. As such, it is clear to see why an all-female art prize held such great importance at the time of the awards inception.
Although feminism has carved equal opportunity for Australian women in most workplaces, gender equality in the art world lags significantly behind. Hence, the arts still needs awards such as the Portia Geach Memorial Award in order to continually progress the vernacular of women artists. Celebrating its 51st year in 2016, the award has provided a platform for previously underrepresented female artists to showcase their work in a non-gender biased environment.
When the Portia Geach Memorial Award was established in 1965, only two women, Nora Heysen and Judy Cassab, had won the Archibald Prize in 1938 and 1960 respectively. In 2016, we have seen only 12 women win the highly regarded prize in the Archibald’s 92 year history, including the 2016 win for Fiona Hearman and her portrait of Barry Humphries. Thus, the social trend of female artists being unrepresented in their field continues.
Although modern women have greater liberties than Geach, many struggle to obtain balance between work, family, and relationships whilst maintaining their sense of identity in the face of it all. The Portia Geach Memorial Award creates a forum for female artists to articulate these conversations; each year artists submit portraits that reference social, political, and personal themes. In 2008 Jude Rae’s winning work, entitled Self portrait 2008, (The year my husband left) considers identity in connection with relationships, and creativity through Rae’s personal experience.
The award has established a forum for artists to form connections with their contemporaries and develop their professional networks. The award presents an opportunity for emerging and established female artists to develop their exhibiting profile and open doors to new ventures. High profile artists such as Wendy Sharpe, Prudence Flint and Ann Cape, consistently enter the award despite their established profile whilst younger artists such as Laura Jones, Tamara Dean, and Loribelle Spirovski have the opportunity to develop their exhibiting history and industry exposure whilst fostering supportive networks amongst their peers.
In the spirit of Portia Geach’s legacy, the Portia Geach Memorial Award has nurtured emerging and established artists to exhibit quality works across a range of themes competitively in their field whilst celebrating the promotion of female artists. Looking toward the future the award will continue to create a space for contemporary female artists to display a high standard of contemporary portraiture.