Kingston Prize portrait exhibition on now at Firehall Theatre

The Kingston Prize national portrait exhibition is on now at the Firehall Theatre in Gananoque. Photo by Cris Viela/Kingstonist

The Kingston Prize is a national portrait competition held every two years, celebrating the rich portraiture work done by Canadian artists.

Founded in 1982 by Kaaren and Julian Brown, the competition was inspired by the Archibald Prize, which has been held annually in Sydney, Australia since 1921. Biennially, the Kingston Prize celebrates 30 portraits by Canadian artists depicting a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, “based on a real-life encounter.” 

This year, the competition makes its triumphant return following a prolonged absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 30 new pieces have been chosen to compete for the $20,000 Kingston Prize. Not only does 2023 mark the first edition of the competition since 2019, according to board member Jamie Galbraith, this year is the first time the event has been held without the Browns leading the way. 

Galbraith explained, “The Browns ran the Prize every two years from 2005 and only stepped down after the 2019 exhibition. This is the first iteration of the Prize without them both at the helm. Unfortunately, Julian passed away late last year and his presence is sorely missed. Julian and Kaaren were both deeply passionate about art, and portraiture in particular.” 

That passion inspired the Browns to establish this competition celebrating portraits, Galbraith noted. 

“Julian once told me that the medium of portraiture is so unique because even if you know nothing about art or art history, the face of the subject draws you in, making it accessible and moving to any viewer. He believed that portraiture is a democratic art form, about people, for people, by people,” she remarked. 

For every edition of the Kingston Prize, a panel of judges selects 30 finalists to take part in the national exhibition. According to Galbraith, the jury typically receives “300 to 500 applications from all across Canada.” The 2023 jury consists of three leading voices in the Canadian art world: Alicia Boutilier, who is the Chief Curator and Curator of Canadian Historical Art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University, Annie Gerin, the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University, and Toronto-based painter Gordon Shadrach. 

Once the finalists are selected but before the prize winners are announced, the portraits are put on display in a public exhibition. For each edition of the competition, the judges award three prizes, two honourable mentions, and the coveted Kingston Prize itself, which comes with a $20,000 cheque. Galbraith explained that such an award can be an enormous boost to the career of a Canadian artist. 

“The prize supports artists in a number of ways. Not only does the $20,000 prize have a major impact on the winner, but the prestige of the prize gives the winner more national scope. Competitions like this offer artists an important accolade and expose them to new potential buyers,” she said, noting that, on top of the three jury prizes, a People’s Choice Award will also be handed out, with those who attend the gallery able to cast a vote for their favourite piece. 

“The People’s Choice award of $1,000 will be announced at the end of the exhibition after all of the votes have been tallied,” Galbraith added. 

The winning portraits will be announced on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. A list of the top 30 portraits is available on the Kingston Prize website, along with additional information on each artist and their works. Galbraith described the various portraits on display as “phenomenal.” 

“We have original works by some of the best visual artists in Canada,” she enthused. 

While previous editions of the Kingston Prize included a national tour of the portraits, Galbraith explained that, for 2023, organizers have put together one national exhibition. However, she said she is “hopeful” the travelling portrait exhibition will return in the future. 

“As this year is our first year back after the COVID-19 pandemic, we will not be touring the prize this year… Touring the exhibition is a big undertaking both financially and logistically,” she explained.

“If we had the correct funding in place, we would aim for a coast-to-coast tour for the prize. The Kingston Prize is a national prize and it deserves to be seen by the whole country.”

This year, the national exhibition is currently underway in Gananoque at The Firehall Theatre (185 South Street). The exhibition is open daily from 12 to 8 p.m., now through October 27, and features works by the top 30 finalists. There is no cost to visit the exhibition, although, Galbraith encouraged, “We would suggest a donation to help support our work.” 

On top of the rich and diverse portraits on display at the Firehall Theatre, Galbraith encouraged art aficionados from Kingston to make the short drive to Gananoque to take in the small town’s fall views. 

“Gananoque is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful small towns in southeastern Ontario and deserves a visit,” she said.

“The fall colours are out in full show and the Thousand Islands’ Playhouse Firehall Theatre is an absolutely gorgeous venue for this exhibition. Come make a day of it by catching a play at the Thousand Islands Playhouse, have lunch at the great restaurants in town, and visit some of the other great local art galleries.”

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