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Different names, same commitment: Our involvement in supporting the arts community began in the early 2000s in the U.K. and Ireland with the Catlin Art Prize; later iterations included the XL Innovate Art Exhibition (in Ireland) and the XL Catlin Art Prize. Building on this legacy, the AXA Art Prize, launched in the U.S. in 2018, has since become known as an excellent platform for highlighting figurative art and the emerging young artists leading its resurgence.

The competition is open to undergraduate and graduate students majoring in studio art at U.S. colleges and universities; entries are limited to figurative paintings, drawings and original prints. This year, more than 400 submissions were received from students attending 125 different institutions. Forty finalists were selected by an Exhibition Jury including curators from the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Noguchi Museum. The first and second prize winners, who will receive $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, will be chosen by a Prize Jury made up of four prominent artists—Julia Chang, Erik Parker, Laurie Simmons and Salmon Toor—and me. The winners will be announced on November 17th.

Necessity is the mother of invention
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 the competition and exhibition are taking a different form. Normally the Prize exhibition would travel from San Francisco to Chicago to New York, but this year the exhibitions in San Francisco and Chicago are canceled, and the in-person event at the New York Academy of Art planned for November currently is on hold. Instead, an interactive virtual gallery will showcase the finalists’ works for a global audience. You can tour the virtual gallery here.

The AXA Art Prize’s traveling exhibition is hardly the only arts-related casualty of COVID-19 this year. The American Alliance of Museums estimates that approximately one-third of the museums closed due to COVID-19 will not reopen their doors again. Cancellations of museum and gallery exhibitions, art fairs and auctions have been disastrous for artists’ careers and livelihoods. With their access to shared studio spaces no longer possible and end-of-year exhibitions called off, art students have had their work lives and career trajectories upended.

Although the arts industry is often one of the first to suffer during times of crisis, hard times change not only how artists work but also how they perceive the world around them, which, after all, is the cornerstone of figurative art. And this pandemic has been no exception to artistic innovation and expression. With traditional modes of working and displaying their work on hold, artists have taken to social media to show and sell their work; to Skype and Zoom to teach art classes; and to the outdoors to hold socially distanced, open-air exhibitions and performances. As AXA Art Prize 2020 finalist Demetri Burke says, “In times like these I think artists get to work. The practice, if implemented actively, moves artwork from depictions or storytelling into activist and therapeutic productions. For me, it’s not the best of times, but it has shown me how much art matters.”

Even if the arts suffer disproportionately in times of crisis, emergencies and their aftermath may be when we need the arts most.

Creating fertile ground
Throughout history, global upheavals have led to outbursts of creativity and artistic innovation. Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 Black Death-inspired masterpiece The Decameron, an archetypal example of creativity during a pandemic, comes to mind. And at the beginning of global lockdowns aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, the claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine from the plague went viral (pardon the pun). Although the accuracy of this claim is debatable, the story reminds us of the creative potential that public health crises can unexpectedly unlock.

More recently, the 20thcentury explosion of artistic movements from Dada to Cubism to Pop Art can be attributed at least in part to the effects of two World Wars and the Great Depression on successive generations of artists. As AXA Art Prize 2020 finalist Davis Arney reminds us, “…difficult and uncertain times like these create fertile ground for artists’ voices to process and poeticize what is happening.”

Many, if not all, of the finalists in this year’s competition have been affected by both COVID-19 and various other tumults roiling the nation and world. Although not all their works respond to crisis directly, many take on new meaning and significance in light of current events, from COVID-19 to global protests for racial justice. Angel Duran’s The Social Interactions of an Insomniac, depicting a lone man on an empty New York City street, resonates in new ways in light of locked-down New York, hit hard by COVID-19. Jessie Lefebvre’s Equality perfectly encapsulates the spirit and drive for change of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement sweeping the world. Sarah Maranze Levy’s Korey, a portrait of Korey King Wise, one of the exonerated Central Park Five, is a poignant reminder of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality that underpins the BLM movement. Corey Lovett explores similar themes in Near Drowning, which describes “the constant internal and external battles Black people endure due to racism and false ideologies in America,” as does Alexandria Couch in Target Practice: It Seems You Must Open Your Arms Wider, “a reflection of the more subtle ways in which one can become a target of racial judgment or unwanted attention.”

Even if the arts suffer disproportionately in times of crisis, emergencies and their aftermath may be when we need the arts most. This year, more than ever, I am honored to be involved with the AXA Art Prize as it recognizes the hard work, perseverance and ambitions of the featured artists and helps launch their careers. While I am always impressed by the talents and creativity of the finalists, this year I am especially struck by these young artists’ readiness to grapple head-on with the injustices they observe in the world. In the eloquent words of finalist Adam Wever-Glen, “The pandemic as well as the BLM movement has forced me to re-examine my life and work. During this time in quarantine, I’ve asked myself many times if what I’m doing is worth pursuing. Making art can feel very selfish much of the time. I’m not directly changing policy or solving injustice by making paintings. I’ve come to peace with these thoughts, though, and concluded that we each have our strengths and weaknesses, and we each help in whatever ways we can. I’m humbled and grateful to be able to continue painting and shining whatever light I can into this world.”

 

About the author: Jennifer is AXA XL’s Global Practice Leader for Art. She has been dedicated to the specialized fine art underwriting market for nearly twenty years and helped establish the AXA Art Prize. Jennifer has a B.A. in art history and economics from Georgetown University and a B.S. in interior architecture from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In her current role, she is responsible for setting worldwide strategy for client solutions, creating and maintaining underwriting guidelines, and managing the overall portfolio. Jennifer is based in New York and can be reached at jennifer.schipf@axaxl.com

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