Arts democracy

by Linda Rogers, August 2010

The inaugural Victoria Emerging Art Awards promises emerging artists a helping hand and the rest of us a good time.

I often wonder, given exponential population increases in the arts community and dwindling public resources, how hard it is for young voices to be heard over the din of established painters and writers. Performers like dancers and actors have a predictable shelf life, but not painters, musicians and writers who, unlike waged Canadians with pension plans, remain standing so long as they can remember where they put the tools of their trades.

Ellen ManningWe keep hearing that we are living in a youth culture, but would that be capital C culture or the consumer culture that generates solid bottom lines in fashion industries? The young get to be beautiful, but do they get to speak? Is the old axiom “they should be seen but not heard” still being put out in defence of the status quo?

This question has clearly been on the mind of 30-something Ellen Manning who has returned to Victoria from successful experiences in the art business in China and Thailand with some innovative ideas about the marketing of young visual artists. 

The Salmon Arm native, who studied art history and English literature at the University of Victoria, landed in Shanghai, the resurrected Paris of China, at just the right time. Having survived the Japanese Invasion and the Cultural Revolution, the newly prosperous Chinese city is redefining its old reputation as an international centre for the arts. 

In Shanghai, Manning worked for the renowned Art Scene China gallery for two years. “It was an exciting time, because I was working with international collectors. Ninety percent of our buyers were online was like working in the stock market, it was so volatile and competitive.” She represented both emerging and established artists whose works ranged from $5000 to $500,000.

Correctly intuiting that it was the right time to focus on the younger artists there, Manning helped establish the China Art Prize, an emerging artist competition that shone a light on the new talent explosion in China. It was hugely successful and has launched many artists into healthy careers (it’s now in its fourth year).

Since returning to Victoria two years ago with her acupuncturist husband, she has been wanting to do something similar here for artists. Inspired as well by Vancouver’s Cheaper Show, with it’s 6 am lineups for 400 artworks each priced at $200, she convinced Heather Wheeler of the Avenue Gallery (where Manning works part-time) to host and sponsor the Victoria Emerging Art Awards on August 19.

There are layers to this inaugural cultural event that will introduce the term “arts democracy” to our vocabulary. Emerging painters, photographers and sculptors between the ages of 19 and 35 have been invited to submit six pieces that will be reviewed by a jury consisting of the Avenue’s Heather Wheeler, Manning, Nichole Stanbridge, a curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and David Hunwick, a sculptor and teacher at the Victoria College of Art. Only artists not (yet) represented by commercial galleries are eligible.

The deadline for submissions is August 1, and word has spread rapidly, both online and otherwise. “It is definitely a competition… Each submission is better than the last one,” reports the happy initiator.

The ten artists selected will choose three pieces each for the show. Then, on opening night, attendees will vote on their favourites.

That night, patrons will also have the opportunity to buy any piece for $200, an art bargain during difficult economic times when many art lovers are buying prints because they can’t afford original art.

Sponsors have been sought for the top three artists in order to provide $5000 for first place, $2500 for second and a $500 gift certificate from Island Blueprint for third.

All ten selected artists will have their work up in the Avenue Gallery until August 26, during which time the prices on unsold pieces will be $800 for the first place winner, $600 for the second place, $400 for the third and $300 for the remaining finalists. (Remember: on opening night every piece is priced at only $200.)

Not only will the top three artists be shown in a respected Victoria gallery, they will also be mentored in marketing strategies and their work shown online. For Manning, it’s far more than a mere art show; it’s a commitment on her part to assist some deserving artists. “I’ll be working with all ten artists who get into the show…It’s about working with these artists—helping them build up their portfolios, get more exposure, get into galleries, build up their online presence.” Manning’s reach extends back into the Orient where she has ongoing client contacts. Her international list of buyers and art lovers is a great resource for young artists looking for a larger picture frame.

Already the web site is showing exciting images by painters Cam Reid, Alexandra Hunter, Tara Juneau, sculptor Jen Wright and photographer Ben Moore. Will they enter? Will they win? Time will tell as submissions fill the studio space and the judges are confronted by difficult choices.

The Emerging Art Awards is a crack in the door for the young and gifted and an opportunity for fresh dialogue in the greater arts community. The opening night party looks like an event everyone who is curious about the future of art in Victoria will want to attend. Someday some of us will look back and say, I voted for so-and-so in 2010 and look at her/him now!

Opening night reception is at 2-8 pm on August 19 with catering by Feys & Hobbs; the show will run to August 26 at The Avenue Gallery, 2184 Oak Bay Ave. More information is available at

Linda Rogers is Victoria’s Poet Laureate.

Copyright© 2010, Linda Rogers