On May 18, 2023, an artist’s life changed overnight. The Bennett Prize’s “Rising Voices 3” touring exhibition opened and named Shiqing Deng, of Brooklyn, New York, the winner of the prestigious 2023 Bennett Prize. She was awarded $50,000, giving her the opportunity to create new work in a figurative realist style for a solo show that will travel the country.
The biennial Bennett Prize is granted exclusively to women painters, addressing a stark institutional disparity in the field. Per the terms set by the Prize’s co-founders, husband-and-wife art collectors Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt, any woman artist who paints in a figurative realist style and is pursuing a career as an artist is eligible to apply.
Of a record number of entrants, ten finalists were selected for the third biennial Bennett Prize: Ruth Dealy, Shiqing Deng, Ronna S. Harris, Haley Hasler, Sara Lee Hughes, Monica Ikegwu, Laura Karetzky, Linda Infante Lyons, Mayumi Nakao, and Kyla Zoe Rafert. “Rising Voices 3,” which runs May 18 – Sept. 10 at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Mich., will exhibit 30 works by these finalists. Concurrently on view will be “The Lessons I Leave You,” the solo show of 2021 Bennett Prize winner Ayana Ross of McDonough, Ga. The work, according to Ross, “will depict the divine in everyday moments.” Following the Muskegon Museum of Art, “Rising Voices 3” will have subsequent tour stops at: the Bo Bartlett Center in Columbus, Ga.; the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, N.Y.; Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia; the Customs House Museum in greater Nashville, Tenn.; and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
This third cycle is the strongest yet. “It’s been exciting to see the artists in this show working at the boundaries of what representation can be: paintings that hover on the edge of abstraction, that engage with the modern world, and that tell stories from inside communities that have often been excluded from the history of Western painting,” says artist and 2023 Bennett Prize juror Zoey Frank.
Also announced, for the first time ever, was The Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt Prize for Achievement in Figurative Realism, which includes $10,000, and was awarded to Ruth Dealy, of Providence, Rhode Island.
Creating an art prize, along with a traveling exhibition featuring women artists, is not an endeavor for the faint of heart. It requires an ability to accept rejection. Though the Prize is backed by a multimillion-dollar endowment at the Pittsburgh Foundation, Bennett recalls that “pretty much nobody was interested in getting behind an art prize for women figurative painters” at the time they first started conceptualizing The Bennett Prize in 2016.
“When we started introducing the concept to museum directors, curators, and other leaders of the art world, the response was yawning indifference. Women hadn’t caught fire yet and figurative realism was still considered square while abstraction, installation art, and video were hip,” he says. “Everyone assumes that figurative realism is the equivalent of photographic realism with figures, but nothing could be further from the truth. We take the view that if it is a figure and a viewer can discern that it’s a figure, that’s sufficiently real to be considered.”
And figurative realism—increasingly deployed by artists to grapple with harrowing events of recent years, from police brutality to the pandemic—has since come roaring back. Schmidt and Bennett, who are among the country’s top collectors of figurative realist art, have found their instincts fully ratified. They have already notched remarkable achievements in the four years since the initiative launched. The 20 artist alums from cycles 1 and 2 have exhibited in 24 solo and 67 group shows, and collectively, they have been the subject of over 50 features in industry publications. Over half have gained gallery representation. The market, too, has validated these artist’s achievements, selling over 100 paintings between them at sales prices which have increased by nearly half.
“We’ve been lucky enough to watch a whole new group of women artists become known and appreciated by a larger art-world audience,” said Bennett.
The Bennett Prize’s “Rising Voices” exhibition will be on view at the Muskegon Museum of Art, May 18–Sept. 10, and will travel the country. Details about The Bennett Prize can be found at thebennettprize.org, and you can learn more about the exhibition at muskegonartmuseum.org.
Interested in becoming a host venue? Visit muskegonartmuseum.org/bennett-prize-prospectus.