The Drake was a buzz of activity and hors d’oeuvres last night—pretty much what you’d expect of the swanky venue, but this time they were celebrating with a good reason: talented Canadian and international artists! The inaugural presentation of the Grange Prize for Contemporary Photography was awarded to Winnipeg native Sarah Anne Johnson.
The Grange Prize was launched in February of 2007, and last night a year’s worth of work finally came to fruition. The prize is named for the AGO’s old resting place, and is a partnership between that institution and Aeroplan. This corporate kinship allows them to offer a whopping $50,000 to the chosen artist, making it the largest prize of its kind in Canada. What also makes the prize noteworthy is that the winner is chosen by the general public through online voting on the prize’s website. A jury consisting of reps from Aeroplan and the AGO choose a shortlist of five Canadian and international finalists, who are then voted on by anyone with the interest, and access to a computer, anywhere in the world.
The prize fosters international relations by choosing artists from a different country each year and allowing them to participate in a cultural exchange in Canada, while sending the Canadian nominees to the country in question. This year it was China; next year it will be Mexico.
Johnson herself—she cuts quite a Feist-like figure, petite, with the requisite blunt bangs—was obviously thrilled, although she confessed that she’s had a few weeks to get used to the idea. “This prize isn’t why artists become artists,” she said, “but it’s an uncertain world, and $50,000…I mean, come on.” She plans to act responsibly and invest in a piece of property in rural Manitoba; a sort of cabin-in-the-woods-cum-art-studio.
The importance of the relationship between human beings and nature is obvious in Johnson’s work. Her photos were inspired both by her tree planting adventures in B.C. and her travels in the Galapagos Islands. But it’s more generally inspired by what she calls “a search for possible utopias,” “thriving communities,” and “bettering myself and the self.”
Just past the age of thirty, Johnson is worried about being a flash in the pan, and also concerned about the self-deprecating tone that photography often has—not considering itself a true art form. “I think this prize is important because it will bring the whole art community together in Canada, and internationally.”
As part of the prize, Johnson will have an exhibition at the AGO in the Spring of 2009.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Anne Johnson.