As avid collectors of figurative paintings, Steven Bennett and Dr. Elaine Schmidt wanted to learn more about the artists they were collecting.
The married couple started making studio visits and heard a recurring story: The female artists struggled to continue their craft due to being moms or having to work part-time jobs to make a living.
Through mutual connections in the art world, Bennett and Schmidt connected with the Muskegon Museum of Art and began discussing what a prize and exhibit to support these artists might look like. The result is The Bennett Prize, culminating in an MMA exhibit debuting May 2, titled Rising Voices: The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realists.
“For us, it felt very relevant, certainly with the Me Too movement,” said Art Martin, MMA’s director of collections and exhibitions and senior curator. “This was an opportunity to have a show that was all women’s voices and dealing with contemporary and timeless cultural and social issues.”
Muskegon Museum of Art helped organize the inaugural prize and exhibition, which features 30 works by the 10 finalists on display throughout the summer. Supporters, jurors and artists will gather on opening night for the announcement of the winner.
The goal of the biennial Bennett Prize is to elevate and encourage the pursuit of figurative realism by female painters, giving them both recognition and financial support. The winner receives a $50,000 stipend to use for “whatever she needs to remove the barriers in the way of her making art full-time,” Martin said.
The museum helped coordinate the submissions, jurying and traveling process, and will host two more Bennett Prizes after this. Bennett and Schmidt set up an endowment through The Pittsburgh Foundation, which covers the stipend and a lot of the exhibition expenses, and should help the prize continue on indefinitely.
“In two years, we will have a solo show of this year’s winner and an exhibition of the next 10 finalists,” Martin said. “We’ve agreed to six years, or three shows.”
A group of jurors, including Bennett and Martin, selected the 10 finalists from a field of 647 entrants from across the United States. The finalists represent a wide array of subjects and themes depicted through faces and figures. The works tell visual stories about the myriad issues facing women and society as a whole.
The finalists rose to the top for their technical excellence, conceptually expressive qualities, and unique take on figurative art. They represent a diversity of voices in terms of age and ethnic and cultural background, Martin said. Because figurative realism is also representational work, it is immediately accessible to the broader public.
“What I really love is just how engaging all of the works are,” Martin said. “They are sorrowful and funny and frantic. … Without needing explanation, you can get to what the artists are saying.”
In the main Walker Galleries A & B, Replay: The Exhibition runs May 9-Aug. 18 and explores popular culture through LEGO sculptures, paintings, photography and mixed media. The artwork references classic Nintendo and Atari, Disney superheroes, Pokémon, Space Invaders, Super Mario Bros and more, Martin said.
The traveling exhibition features 11 sculptures by award-winning LEGO brick artists. Known as The Collective, this collaborative team created large-scale depictions of Alice in Wonderland, Goofy frozen in carbonite, a Rubik’s Cube, a Tie Fighter, a giant bowl of cereal, and an oversized ice cream cone.
“It speaks to people with and without a lot of art experience,” Martin said. “It’s just a different way of looking at art and making art, because LEGO is such a household item. It’s great for inspiring creativity.”
Martin said it’s going to be a fun summer, and he hopes the exhibits build engagement in the local community and the national reputation of the museum.
Rising Voices: The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realists
Muskegon Museum of Art
296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon
May 2-Sept. 8
Opening reception 5:30 p.m. with prize announcement at 7 p.m.