Spotlight - A trip to outback Queensland home of the John Villiers Outback Art Prize

Posted 8 August 2023 05:09 PM

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In the heart of Central Western Queensland lies the iconic town of Winton, known for its rich history, cultural significance, and captivating natural wonders. Winton, situated 177 kilometres northwest of Longreach, holds a special place in Australia's heritage. It was the birthplace of Qantas, the airline that went on to become a global aviation giant. Moreover, it's where Banjo Paterson, a legendary Australian poet, composed the timeless lyrics of "Waltzing Matilda." This charming town is also renowned for its remarkable dinosaur fossils, drawing palaeontologists and enthusiasts alike to explore its ancient past.

Yet, beyond these historical and natural treasures, Winton serves as the backdrop for an annual event that beckons artists from across Australia: the John Villiers Outback Art Prize (JVOAP). Administered by Karen Stephens and hosted within the Waltzing Matilda Museum, the JVOAP has evolved into a prestigious competition that celebrates the essence of the Australian outback. Each March, the town becomes a hub of creativity and inspiration, welcoming artists and art enthusiasts to its vibrant cultural scene.

The JVOAP stands as a testament to the enduring allure of the outback. Its theme, "Outback: A Sense of Place," reflects a deep connection to this unique region and its mission statement is to support artworks that interpret the theme. The prize has become a platform for artists to express their diverse perspectives on the outback's landscape, culture and history. Professional artists, as well as those inspired by their own outback experiences, converge here to capture the essence of this remarkable place through their art.

Karen explains that artists are drawn to the prize for various reasons. Some are professionals specialising in outback spaces and contemporary landscapes who are drawn to the theme. Others are driven by personal experiences in the outback, seeking to capture the unique spirit they encountered. This diversity of inspiration infuses the competition with fresh perspectives and a wealth of artistic voices.

The JVOAP has transcended its origins to become more than just a prize. It now serves as a platform for professional development and networking for artists, fostering a sense of community engagement in the wider local community. Youth engagement is a particular focus, nurturing the next generation of artists and art enthusiasts. The prize has also gained prominence on the Australian art scene, attracting entries from across the nation.

One unique aspect of the JVOAP is its remote location in Winton, situated 1,400 kilometres from Brisbane and approximately 650 kilometres from Townsville. This remote setting presents both benefits and challenges.

Hosting a prize in such an isolated location exposes artists' works to new audiences and a wider demographic, enriching their exposure and experiences. Encouraging artists to attend the Finalist Exhibition Opening Event provides them with opportunities to explore the region's attractions, network with fellow artists, and find inspiration within their practice.

However, there are challenges. The perception of distance can deter artists from submitting their works, the logistics of transporting art to such a remote location being potentially daunting. Art carriers may be hesitant to travel to remote areas, and even if they do, the freight cost may exceed the gallery’s allocated budget. Unpredictable weather events, such as flooding and temporary road closures, can disrupt travel plans unexpectedly. Additionally, there can sometimes be a misconception that remote prizes are of lesser quality than their urban counterparts, however active collaboration with sponsors and supporters is key to building a competitive prize.

Despite these challenges, the JVOAP continues to thrive and evolve, showcasing the enduring power of art to unite people, inspire creativity and celebrate the unique beauty of the Australian outback. Over 23 years, the prize has transformed from humble beginnings into a high-profile national competition and a platform for professional development.

The prize's origins trace back to 1998, when Winton Shire Council embarked on a mission to establish an art gallery and public program that would increase access to and develop arts and culture in the community and the region. Since then, it has grown into a prominent annual event, attracting artists from all corners of Australia.

The JVOAP has also been a stage for local talent to shine. In 2019, a local artist, Margaret Campbell from Mount Isa, claimed the first prize of $10,000. Margaret's win was a testament to the talent that thrives within the outback itself.

The local arts community has played an integral role in the success of the JVOAP. The prize and its opening night have become highly anticipated events on Winton's annual calendar, fostering a sense of pride and cultural identity within the community.

While sales during the exhibition can be unpredictable, they tend to surge on opening night and during the exhibition's launch at the start of the peak visitation season. This provides a valuable boost for the finalist artists, supporting their ongoing artistic endeavours.

Beyond the prize, Winton itself is a cultural gem in the heart of the outback. Its historical significance, natural wonders and architectural charm make it a captivating destination for artists and visitors alike. It was in Winton that Qantas held its first board meeting in 1921, marking the birth of Australia's commercial aviation industry. The town's Age of Dinosaurs park, located just 25 kilometres away, offers a unique opportunity to explore world-class dinosaur fossils and a fascinating fossil laboratory.

Winton's wide main street, adorned with grand pubs and shops featuring spacious verandas, exudes the unmistakable charm of outback Australia. It's a place where history, culture and nature coexist, providing a rich tapestry of experiences for all who venture here.

But at the heart of it all is the JVOAP, an annual celebration of the outback's unique beauty and spirit. As it continues to evolve and draw artists from far and wide, it reaffirms the enduring power of art to unite people and inspire creativity. In the remote reaches of Winton, this prize stands as a testament to the vibrant and diverse cultural landscape of Australia's outback, offering a platform for artists to share their visions and for audiences to gain a deeper understanding of this remarkable region.

The JVOAP is calling for entries from 19 August 2023 to 12 January 2024 and the next exhibition will be held from 23 March to 19 May 2024.

Links to websites:

Waltzing Matilda Museum: https://www.matildacentre.com.au/

John Villiers Trust: https://jvtrust.org.au/about/

Image is courtessy of the artist and the John Villiers Art Prize, by Margaret Campbell, titled "Grandpa Huey’s Butcher Shop Kynuna"