Bennett and Schmidt’s decision to restrict the award to emerging female figurative painters is twofold: to support female figurative painters who haven’t reached a certain level of success or exposure, and to expose the public to figurative realism and women painters, both of which are underappreciated and undervalued, according to the couple.
Frank commended the couple’s decision to focus on this niche group. “Though figuration may come in and out of favor, it’s a timeless form of expression that also must be supported,” she said. “If we don’t see ourselves and our bodies, in whatever forms, where are we? There are few schools that teach it—like the New York Academy of Art—so the Bennett Prize helps protect and support those who engage with this tradition.”
The Bennett Prize’s impact on a recipient’s career might also be curbed by the grant’s lack of name recognition and prestige, given how new it is. “The funds themselves go only so far, and the real value of a grant is in the prestige of the award and the opportunities that stem from the recognition,” said Ramo.
Italian patron Valeria Napoleone, who has provided funding
to museums for the commissioning and collection of work by female artists, said the prize could build a solid reputation by seeking high-profile jurors, and based on what its selected artists go on to achieve: “It is certainly a substantial award that will help the recipients. However, the level of members of the jury and the type of artists selected are absolutely key to its reputation and effectiveness.”
The prize’s jury so far is small, consisting of four members:
, both female artists who paint figuratively and whose works are included in Bennett’s collection; Art Martin, the director of collections and exhibitions at the Muskegon Museum of Art, where the prize’s exhibitions will be held; and Bennett himself. (To prevent potential bias that Bennett might bring with him as a collector of the type of work the prize supports, he said that Kowch, Tomasula, and Martin will “take the lead in the [jury] process.”)
Additionally, while the prize offers the recipient a solo show at the Muskegon Museum of Art, the institution is not widely known: It is located in a small city in western Michigan, and its reputation is primarily regional.
Even so, Bennett and Schmidt see Muskegon as an ideal fit for the prize. Bennett praised the institution’s “‘git’er done’ attitude,” its devoted staff, and its “demonstrated commitments to the things we as benefactors and collectors believe in: women as worthy artists, figurative realism as a genre to be respected and exhibited, and the need for a competition that is open-minded, fair, and broad based in its appeal.”