Figurative art - Ronna S. Harris (b. 1952),
Ronna S. Harris (b. 1952), "Marital Bliss," 2022, oil on canvas, 51 x 67 in., collection of the artist

Bennett Prize & Collection
Muskegon Museum of Art
Muskegon, Michigan,
May 18–September 10, 2023

Launched in 2018, the Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters is the largest of its kind, offering each winner $50,000 payable over two years. Endowed through a $3 million fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation established by the San Antonio-based art collectors Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt, this biennial prize has been successfully propelling the careers of full-time female painters who have not yet reached “full professional recognition,” which the Bennetts define as having sold a single work for $25,000 or more. In receiving $25,000 annually for two years, the winner is accorded some financial “breathing room” in order to create a fresh body of work she might not otherwise have the bandwidth to make.

The driving force behind the prize initiative was the impressive collection that Bennett and Schmidt have been forming since 2009. It now consists of more than 200 works by women figurative realist painters, including major examples by such living talents as Margaret Bowland, Aleah Chapin, Alyssa Monks, and Katie O’Hagan, as well as historical pieces by such forerunners as Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt, and Elaine de Kooning.

Steven Bennett notes, “From the moment we commenced collecting, we were concerned that women artists were not being treated equally with men. They have fewer shows; they have fewer pieces in museums’ permanent collections; and their works have almost universally sold for less than those of men. We have seen our collection as a way to right some of these wrongs and are delighted that the Muskegon Museum of Art is joining us to ensure that the effort continues long into the future.”

Indeed, Michigan’s Muskegon Museum of Art (MMA) has played a crucial role as the setting for the announcements of the Bennett Prize’s first two editions, and it has launched the national tours of exhibitions of works by the 10 finalists and the prizewinners (Aneka Ingold of Florida and Ayana Ross of Georgia, respectively).

This past November, the Bennett Prize 3’s 10 finalists were announced: Ruth Dealy (Rhode Island), Ronna S. Harris (Louisiana), Haley Hasler (Colorado), Sara Lee Hughes (Texas), Monica Ikegwu (Maryland), Laura Karetzky (New York), Linda Infante Lyons (Alaska), Mayumi Nakao (New York), Kyla Zoe Rafert (Ohio), and Deng Shiqing (New York). The jury consisted of artists Julie Bell and Zoey Frank, Steven Bennett, and Joseph Rosa,  who until recently served as director and CEO of Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. Bell recalls that “it was an emotional experience to judge this competition.” She says, “Going through each artist’s body of work was like meeting each one in person and having a heart-to-heart conversation. So many different styles of painting, so many different stories told. I felt connected to every one of them.”

Looking forward, the finalists will gather in Muskegon on May 18 to learn the name of the winner and, for the first time, of a $10,000 runner-up award recipient. All of the finalists’ paintings will remain on view at the MMA until September 10, as will the new show of Ayana Ross’s latest works. (These two exhibitions will then begin a national tour, including stops in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.)

Elaine Schmidt says the MMA was chosen as the initiative’s lead museum partner because of its longstanding commitment to both women artists and realism. “They understood what we were trying to do from the beginning and shared our passion,” she explains, adding special praise for executive director Kirk Hallman and for senior curator and director of collections and exhibitions Art Martin.

Their high regard is borne out by Bennett and Schmidt’s recent decision to give the MMA more than 150 of their paintings; these works have been created by 115 women artists and are together worth more than $10 million. Kirk Hallman says, “Steven and Elaine’s vision is one shared by the MMA. Our relationship has helped to elevate this art museum to a national scale… In addition, the Bennett-Schmidt gift is a call to action institutionally, encouraging both the Muskegon Museum of Art and other museums to continually expand opportunities for women artists.”

In addition to their art, Schmidt and Bennett are donating $1.5 million toward the MMA’s $11.2 million expansion — 26,000 square feet that will more than double its size and encompass a new wing dedicated to women artists. This capital project will be completed early in 2024.

As for the Bennett Prize itself, the data is in: the 18 finalists and two winners from its first and second editions have now sold more than 100 paintings at a 45 percent increase in pricing — despite the impact of COVID-19. These artists have also exhibited in 19 solo shows and 46 group shows — exactly what the founders had hoped for back in 2018 when the initiative launched. Fine Art Connoisseur congratulates everyone involved and looks forward to seeing the latest artworks in Muskegon this spring.


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