Although a relatively new art prize, the influence of the Ramsay Art Prize, awarded every two years, is something artists under 40 can aspire to.
“Honestly, it is life changing.” These are the words shared by Ida Sophia about receiving the Ramsay Art Prize in 2023.
The prize, which launched in 2017, is made possible thanks to the extraordinary support of the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation and awarded every two years.
Open to Australian artists under 40 working in any medium, it sees a shortlisted selection of works exhibited at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The winner is awarded $100,000 and their work of art is acquired into the Gallery’s permanent collection, while a publicly-voted People’s Choice Prize winner receives $15,000.
“I think that where it’s gotten to is to be the equivalent of the Archibald for contemporary art for artists under 40,” says Sophia.
“It’s huge. The press circuit that I got thrown into after the win – I was shocked. Every news station wanted to talk to me. It was just unbelievable.”
For Sophia, winning the Ramsay with her performance-based video work Witness is a milestone in a rapidly evolving career.
The performance artist began her practice in 2018 during an artist’s residency in Bulgaria. In the five years since, she has balanced public performances and exhibitions with training under artists from around the world and earning her Bachelor of Visual Arts.
While the period has included many highlights, Sophia says her development has been at its most rapid when she’s received enough support to work full-time as an artist.
“I’ve received funding from Arts South Australia, the Independent Arts Foundation, the Adelaide City Council, and my own investment of course,” she says.
“I think that for a lot of work, if you want to achieve a certain quality, then you often have to self-invest quite a lot. Which means working another job, which means taking you out of the studio and consequently the ideas come out slower.”
2021 Ramsay Art Prize winner Kate Bohunnis’ trajectory towards the award also relied on picking a path through the often-precarious arts funding environment. The multi-disciplinary artist’s creative impulses led her towards materials and processes that can be resource-intensive.
“A lot of the works that I make take a lot of time and can be quite ambitious, which means obviously I don’t have time to be working other jobs,” says Bohunnis, who fabricated her winning kinetic sculpture edges of excess from a material palette that includes silicone, stainless steel and aluminium.
“So, I work where I can, but I really rely on funding support, otherwise it just wouldn’t be sustainable whatsoever.”
For both of these South Australian-based artists, the Ramsay Art Prize provided a sense of financial stability that supported their onward career growth.
Sophia has already allocated some of the funds towards her next project Verse, which is a sibling work of Witness and will be performed on August 1 at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE). But, she says the financial benefits aren’t the largest impact of the Prize.
“I think that when you have that visibility, your work enters into the critical dialogue with the conversations that contemporary art is looking to have,” says Sophia. “That is what’s so important when you’re an artist.
“You’re making work that is posing questions and asking people to consider things. And it’s very validating to know that what you’re doing is viewed as something important to be considered.”
Bohunnis says the Ramsay was a catalyst for a slew of conversations about her work that ultimately gave her confidence in her direction.
“I spend so much time in my studio just making these things, and it’s really hard, of course, to step outside of it and look in and see its worth or see if I’m on the right track or see if the stuff that I’m making is just off the wall,” she says.
“So, having all the conversations that followed [from the Prize] with different people about my work really made me feel like I can trust the trajectory that I’m on and just keep going.”
Sophia and Bohunnis join Vincent Namatjira and Sarah Contos as winners of the Prize, which commenced in 2017. Both Contos and Namatjira have experienced significant growth since their wins, with Contos’ work acquired by the National Gallery of Australia and Namatjira going on to show in New York and win the Archibald.
The Ramsay’s impact is not limited to winners, though. 2021 People’s Choice Prize recipient Hoda Afshar’s career accelerated rapidly after the Ramsay exhibition. She is currently preparing to open her first major solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Since being announced as the winner, Sophia is still unsure of where the Prize will lead her. Already, though, she knows it is a special moment where she was welcomed into both an influential canon and conversation.
“I volunteered at the [Art] Gallery [of SA] between 2012 and 2018,” she says. “To now be part of that permanent collection is like a total dream come true. Just to hang on the walls, I was like, this is enough.
“And I think that all the works that have been chosen, they’ve been challenging and not safe. And I think that that has really set a tone for this Prize… it’s this desire for contemporary art to grow. To expand and test and experiment.”
Voting for this year’s People’s Choice Prize is open until August 6, and all visitors to the exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia can vote by scanning the QR codes displayed with the works.
To find out more about how Arts SA may be able to support your career, click here.