It costs $30 to enter the Archibald Prize. It costs $95 to enter the Cromwell’s Art Prize. So this Cromwell’s gong must be some prize.

More like a booby prize, according to artist Stephen James, who was one of 30 finalists last year for his painting Inland Sea. He’s warning fellow artists to think twice before entering this year, even though the prize pool has grown from $50,000 to $200,000. And apparently he’s not the only 2005 finalist expressing disquiet at the way last year’s Prize was handled.

The Cromwell’s Art Prize is associated with Cromwell’s Auction House and was established in 2004 with the aim of inviting “emerging to mid-career Australian artists to produce museum-quality artworks for entry to Cromwell’s Art Prize, Exhibition and Tour”. We’re trying to assist emerging artists “to be ‘picked up’ in, say, London or New York, or Washington”, says the Art Prize site.

A pretty tempting idea, so James signed up. In so doing, he agreed to terms that are pretty “outrageous”, an auction house insider tells Crikey – like the condition that “should Cromwell’s Art Prize or its sponsor exercise its right to acquire the work, the Copyright is to be irrevocably assigned to the Art Prize or its sponsor now and forever more”.

But James figured it was worth waiving some of his rights and copyrights for what he believed was the possibility of his work touring Australia as well as London, New York and Paris. To date, the finalists’ works have not left Sydney. In the end, tours to Paris and New York were not possible for the 2005 Art Prize due to a “number of difficulties”, wrote Cromwell’s Art Prize coordinator Hellen Perko in an undated letter to James.

There was, however, due to be an exhibition at London’s Light Gallery from 3-17 July 2006 and on the strength of this, James booked a $2,000 ticket for London. But on 7 June, Perko informed the artists that she had also been forced to postpone it. When James requested that Cromwell’s reimburse him for the airfare, Perko told him that she couldn’t because “the Art Prize is a philanthropic endeavour and not a commercial exercise which we have not, nor will we profit from.”

As for the tour, it’s “still going ahead,” Perko tells Crikey. It’s just been postponed due to a “restructure in the organisation”. Meanwhile, she says James’s qualms about the Art Prize are “a bit of an overreaction”. And “I don’t know where he got the idea of Paris”.

But we do. From a letter dated 11 November 2005 in which the organisation’s Margaret Szalay tells James “your work will now be part [sic] the Touring exhibition of the Finalist works to be exhibited throughout 2006 in Australia in London and Paris. Opportunities to tour in the USA are still being finalised.” Perko was not working for Cromwell’s at the time.

As yet, there’s no definite timetable for the rescheduled tour.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey