For more than 20 years, Jenny Birt has been encouraging and supporting young artists to pursue and build careers as professional practicing artists. One of the ways she has supported young and emerging artists is through an annual $3,000 award – the Jenny Birt Award at UNSW Art & Design.

While Australians may be a sports-loving people research confirms that every year nearly almost every Australians consumes at least one art form (films, music festivals, literature, and museum and gallery visits) and nearly half participate in the making or producing creative arts. 

In 2015, more than 44,000 people identified themselves as practicing artists (just over 17% of whom are engaged in full-time creative practice) and 109,000 students were undertaking creative qualifications at a tertiary level. With the cultural sector contributing $50 billion to national economy, perhaps it’s not surprising that the Australia Council has found that “Australians value their artists” and nine out of ten people “agree that artists make an important contribution to Australian society."

Within this environment, private support to artists and the arts continues to grow, and while not every donation can be on the scale of Simon Mordant’s $15 million gift to the MCA for the Mordant Wing, smaller donations are no less important.  In the lives of emerging practitioners, these gifts are possibly even more important especially if they target emrging and early career artists as they make the transition to professionals.  

Jenny Birt is a longstanding advocate and donor in the area of visual arts. She established the Jenny Birt Award at UNSW Art & Design more than 20 years ago, and over this time has contributed to the career development of 22 emerging artists. The award, worth $3,000, is given to an outstanding final-year student in the area of painting. The goal in the eyes of Birt is to “encourage young artists to continue on a path to being life-long practitioners.” She believes artists must be supported in their practice because they, in time, “give back to all of us.”

Over its twenty year history the Jenny Birt Award has continued to grow in stature and presitige. Students interested in winning the prize must first merit recommendation by an internal panel (this year headed by David Eastwood artist and lecturer at UNSW Art & Design with input from six other lecturers who teach in the UNSW Bachelor of Fine Arts degree).     

The final selection committee is a tripartite arrangement reflecting the history of the Award’s establishment. In 2016 the committee includes Joanna Strumpf, one half the gallery success-story of Sullivan + Strumpf now in its eleventh year of operation; Joyce Archer, a member of the University of New South Wales’ devoted band of volunteer fundraisers (known as the ‘U Committee’, which after more than 50 years of services and raising more than $3.5 million, has formally closed. Its members however remain tirelessly committed); and David Eastwood, donning his experienced artist’s hat.    

Eastwood says the Jenny Birt Award is deliberately “positioned at a formative stage of a person’s arts career, when they are doing coursework and just finding their ‘voices’ in creative contexts”. As a judge he says he is looking for “promising evidence-based work” – or – “the student best able to synthesize all the elements that are valued in a practice, including a conceptual framework and processes and technique."  

The impact of the Jenny Birt Award can be measured by the achievements of previous winners. Among other notables, Maria Kontis, the 2000 winner, is now represented by Gitte Weise Gallery in Berlin and Sydney. She’s best known for her stylish and hyper-realistic drawings of historical documents and photographs and has exhibited her works worldwide, including in Australia, China, Germany and the UK.  

Stephanie Nova, now Stephanie Nova Milne, the 2004 winner, credits the Jenny Birt Award with helping to “boost” the early stages of her artist-collective career with fellow student, Richard Milne. Stephanie’s winning entry was a series of some of the first “performative drawings” that she and Richard had composed together under their professional name Ms&Mr. Stephanie and Richard, known today as novaMilne, are the recipients of the Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship (effectively a $45,000 stipend – plus travel expenses, medical insurance and tuition fees – to live and work anywhere in the world) and the International Studio & Curatorial Program (a major residency based in Brooklyn, New York that introduces international artists to New York audiences through exhibitions, lectures, talks and screenings). They reside in New York City.

Anthoni Buselli, the 1998 winner, says the Jenny Birt Award ensured that he “persevered with [his] art practice outside of university." He’s now been a full-time practicing artist more than 20 years, exhibiting with Stella Downer Fine Art and Artsite. His approach – broad-brush strokes usually using a monochromatic palette – has changed little. He says, “I copy black and white photographs” and is interested in what is “lost” and what is “gained” in translating photography into painting.

This year Birt firstly named two students in the Highly Commended category. They were Paula Ngu, whose 10 panel concertina artist book offered a visual story of time, regeneration, and loss; and Rebecca Waterstone for her metallic-sheened explorations of colour made with oil and beeswax. 

The 2016 winner, 21-year-old Leila El Rayes, was then announced to a loud, large and approving crowd. Her 1 x 0.75 meter prayer rug, hangs in stark contrast to all other paintings in the exhibition. Liela’s untitled work is composed of acrylic and up-ended rusted nails arranged in the shape of a human silhouette. According to the judges, the winning work is strong in all categories of theme, composition, application and originality.   

The 22 recipients of the Jenny Birt Award are: Vicki White, Stephanie Monteith, Anthony Buselli, Lois Robertson, Maria Kontis, Fiona Greenhill, Patricia Kirkman, Nicola Brown, Jaqueline Olivetti, Stephanie Nova Milne, James Smythe, Jeremy Bakker, Kathy Yeh, Sue-Elyn Millson, Tom Ferson, Bernice Ong, Sarah Park, Marikit Santiago, Lisa Sammut, Broc Webster, Lucy Zaroyko, and Leila El Rayes.