Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Does Portrait Artist of the Year ignore older artists?

Is Portrait Artist of the Year failing to reflect the diversity agenda by being ageist?
Or do older people just not enter art competitions - because they think they'll be ignored?

I received a very interesting letter the SKY Portrait Artist of the Year competition recently - which I am reproducing below
Dear Katherine. 
I don't know if you are the right person to approach, but I was directed to your e-address when looking for information on the website detailing how to enter the SKY Portrait Artist of the Year competition. My wife (aged 70) is an enthusiastic and ( I think) talented painter but has been put off entering the competition as the average age of the contestants is clearly around thirty, and the median age mid-twenties.

On the website in which you feature, it makes a point of saying 
We do not cast for characters – instead, our expert judges select participants based purely on the quality of their submission artwork. 
I find it incredible ( in the true sense of the word) that of the tens of thousands of entries the expert judges must receive and judge 'purely on merit', those considered worthy of appearing on the programme all happen to lie within such a limited and specific age range. It is even more puzzling as painting is one of the nation's most favoured post-retirement hobbies/activities . Obviously there is a puzzle here. If the programme were to be called Young Portrait Artist of the Year, that would explain all, of course.

Can you clear this mystery up for me or point me in the right direction to enquire?
I and I believe millions of potential viewers would be shocked and saddened to think that a programme series based on examining, analysing, exploring and interpreting all aspects of a creative activity which by definition abhors restrictive and unthinking prejudice in any form were to limit entry to a certain telegenic age group and am sure you would agree. 
Thanks so much for your kind attention. 
I think G raises an interesting aspect of DIVERSITY - namely ageism - which, in my opinion,

  • often gets completely ignored by those who make television programmes, 
  • sometimes because those making the programmes may made be younger people living in cosmopolitan areas (often in the south) which don't have an age profile which reflects the country as a whole. 
However 15% of the total population of the UK is over 70 and a lot are very active.

Older People on Portrait Artist of the Year

Sky Arts is very good at reflecting the wider population in terms of the conventional groups of people who tend to be identified around a diversity agenda eg BAME / LGBTQ / Disabilities.

In my opinion, PAOTY is NOT as good at paying the same sort of attention to older people - except in relation to inviting them to be a sitter (which is actually as arduous a task as being a portrait artist if done properly!).

For example, I have noticed:
  • a change in the age profile over time - I have to say that it very much seemed to me that the people involved in the competition this year appeared overall to be were very much younger than they had been in previous years. I'm not sure why. New bod sat on the casting desk doing the initial sift?
  • what seems like a preference for selecting younger artists about to make the grade. There seems to me to be a tendency on the part of the Judges to try and make sure they give at least one younger artist the benefit of the career stepping stone represented by being in the Final. Indeed I'd suggest they've sometimes done this in my opinion at the expense of older and more able artists.
Would it be too much to ask that at least 1 person in every heat was an older person (eg over the age of 65)?

Older People and painting

I'm well aware that painting is a HUGELY popular activity for older people. 

Indeed it's an activity that very many take up for the first time after retirement - because it's the first time they've ever had enough  time to spend on studying and then practising their skills.

Anybody who has ever been on a painting course or holiday will be very familiar with the age profile of those who typically choose to spend both time and money on developing their knowledge and skills in painting.  I started going on painting holidays in my mid 30s and for some years was well aware that I was the baby of the group by some decades!

I well remember going to Bali back in the early 90s with an 83 year old called Joan who put the rest of us to shame as she was up before breakfast every day and had completed her first landscape painting before she sat down to breakfast - and she was good!  I think she averaged about three - four paintings every day of the fortnight we were there - and nothing phased her.

Interestingly she was symbolic for me of the older person who wants to pack as much as they can in to whatever time they have left and hence when they "go for it" they REALLY "go for it"!

So, by way of another example, some of the stalwarts of the pensioner artists brigade are people who lug heavy kit around all over the country while plein air painting - out in the fields and in the back of beyond.  I have an older friend in her 70s who lives in a very rural area of New Mexico who is plein painting all over the state and also travelling inter state for prestigious plein air paintouts!

I very much think any notion that older people would have neither the stamina nor the fitness to paint for four hours over a very long day should be revisited if this is the reason why older people are not chosen.

I have to say my personal theory is that it maybe older people do not apply when they should do i.e.

  • there are not enough older people making the grade 
  • because not enough apply who could make the grade!

Maybe the solution rests in:

  • Sky Arts taking a broader perspective on diversity
  • More older painters "having a go" and sending in an entry form together with a really good self-portrait!

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