Providing a substantial financial windfall and an incomparable platform, the Melbourne Prize is a golden opportunity for Victoria’s most talented artists.
Amongst the many prizes and awards for creative work in Australia, the Melbourne Prize stands out as one of the most generous. With a major prize of $60,000 awarded each year for excellence in music, writing or urban sculpture (the discipline changes each year according to a three-year cycle), along with additional prizes totalling tens of thousands, the Melbourne Prize is designed to have a major and positive impact on the careers of its winners.
The Prize has three goals: to recognise and reward excellence and talent, to inspire creative development, and to enrich public life. Each year the finalists are featured in an exhibition in The Atrium at Federation Square, where attendees are encouraged to vote in the Civic Choice award, worth $4,000. The number of prizes on offer varies from year to year, ranging from a few thousand dollars to up to $30,000, and often include opportunities to complete a residency or career-related travel. Around $100,000 in total is awarded each year.
Simon Warrender is the beating heart at the centre of the Melbourne Prize. He is its founder as well as the Executive Director of the Melbourne Prize Trust, and the Prize is modelled on his vision.
The idea came to him in the early 2000s, when he was wrapping up a project as part of the Committee for Melbourne’s mentorship program, the Future Focus Group. As a participant in the program, Simon had successfully commissioned a sculpture of characters from Norman Lindsay’s classic book, The Magic Pudding, and arranged for it to be installed at what would later become the Children’s Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens.
At the sculpture’s unveiling in 2004, Simon announced the launch of the Melbourne Prize. He had recognised that Melbourne was going through a “cultural renaissance”, and felt that a major prize would cement the city’s reputation as the cultural capital of Australia. Sales of limited edition Magic Pudding bronze miniatures provided the initial funding.
Since the first Melbourne Prize was awarded in 2005, the Trust has given away over $1.2million with financial support coming from the government, corporate and private sectors. The three creative sectors for the Prize were chosen based on where Simon felt there was the most need.
“I did a lot of research and figures jumped out at me,” he says. “For example, the average earnings of a writer in Australia was $11,000. There weren’t a lot of awards for sculpture and I thought it was a sector that could have done with a bit of support. The research I did to start this was not just to put another prize on the market, it was to look at what was really needed.”
The Victorian Government came on board as a partner in 2008 and since then as provided an annual grant to support the administration of the Prize which has also allowed the Trust to leverage extensive philanthropic sponsorship.
Past recipients of the major Prize have included authors Helen Garner, Christos Tsiolkas and Alex Miller; sculptors Bianca Hester, Alexander Knox and the Open Spatial Workshop; and musicians Paul Grabrowsky (pianist and composer), Kutcha Edwards (songwriter/performer) and David Jones (percussionist).
The competition is open across all genres within literature, music or urban sculpture, allowing the cream to rise to the top. “The pitch is that talent is talent,” says Simon. “We’re cross-genre, which gives the greatest opportunity for talent to surface, whatever it is. I think David Jones is an amazing example. He’s a great ambassador for percussionists, who sometimes don’t get the profile that other musicians get.”
A financial windfall like this can buy an artist a lot of time to work on new material. But some of the other benefits to the arts are not as obvious.
Andrea Goldsmith, who won the Best Writing Award in 2015 for her novel The Memory Trap, says that while the $30,000 prize helped her travel overseas to research her next novel, sales of The Memory Trap went up as a result of the prize medallion being added to the cover.
“Winning the award resulted in a new print run and a real boost in sales,” Andrea says. “Best of all, my publishers included the title in their new overseas venture. Publishers favour prize winners – it’s a great hook for publicity – and organisations wanting keynote speakers also want prize winners.”
For drummer David Jones, who won the Melbourne Prize for Music in 2010, the boost to his profile led to a raft of new professional opportunities. “Being a recipient of Prize was certainly quite special and still is influential,” he says. “It gave a lot of credibility and gravitas to my achievements and focus over the years and continues to give weight to my ongoing body of work. I'm sure it contributed to my appointment as Honorary Senior Fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in 2013.” David was also able to travel to India and Japan for career opportunities, and saw a spike in interest from the media after winning the Prize.
Indigenous singer-songwriter Kutcha Edwards won both the Melbourne Prize for Music and the Distinguished Musicians Fellowship in 2016. “I have had the opportunity to slow things down a bit, and work on some projects that I would otherwise not have had the opportunity to work on,” he says. “Overall it's been an honour and hopefully I have inspired other Indigenous musicians to have opportunity to apply like I did.”
Sculptor Kay Abude also took home two prizes – the Professional Development Award and the Civic Choice Award in 2014. For her, the awards led to new opportunities to exhibit as well as teaching appointments, a residency and a trip to the Venice Biennale. She also says that the process of submitting and installing her work for the prize was incredibly valuable.
“Working with Simon over a 5-month period in consultation with the other staff involved in the making of the exhibition pushed me into new territory that impacted my growth and development as a young artist immensely,” she says. “The process itself was what was valuable. It was exhilarating.”