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VIEWPOINT - Personality - Julian & Kaaren Brown

Eyes on the Prize

How Julian & Kaaren Brown’s artistic vision became reality

By  Lindy Mechefske | Photo By Scott Adamson

Julian and Kaaren Brown, founders of the Kingston Prize, Canada’s biennial portrait competition, were kick-started into action after seeing the Archibald Prize, Australia’s portrait competition, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They were enjoying an afternoon drink in the Australian sunshine, talking about how Canada needed a similar competition, when Julian’s brother said, “Look, either shut up about a Canadian portrait prize or get on with it.” 
Shortly after that, the Browns put up the prize money for the inaugural Kingston Prize competition, held in 2005. The prize was named for the city where they raised their family.
Julian Brown, an emeritus professor of Chemistry at Queen’s University, grew up in Sydney, Australia and remembers the excitement and controversy incited over portrait submissions to the Archibald Prize during his teenage years. Brown met Kaaren, an industrial designer with a big interest in art and design, while he was doing his doctoral work in Illinois. They married and moved to Kingston in 1962, moved to Australia for several years, and returned to Kingston in 1969.
“We saw an opportunity here to create a world-class portrait prize competition similar to both the Archibald Prize and the BP Portrait Award in London, England,” says Julian. “These competitions are big events that attract high quality work, a staggering number of viewers and significant media attention.”
The Browns’ vision for a no-barriers, merit-based competition — one not subject to a lot of rules — means that emerging artists stand as much chance of winning the Kingston Prize as established artists with a large body of work. “It’s almost the only national open-entry art competition in Canada,” says Kaaren. Outside of maximum size limits and a timeline requirement, the only real restrictions are that both the artists and their subjects must be Canadian with Canadians being defined as citizens, permanent residents or landed immigrants.
“A national portrait competition allows us to develop an important, comprehensive, and incomparable archive of the people of this country,” says Julian. To date, 1700 portraits from all regions of Canada have been entered in the Kingston Prize competition. A distinguished jury of artists selects the 30 finalists, whose work is displayed in the exhibition and also in a catalogue. The jury later awards the Kingston Prize and two Honourable Mentions. A People’s Choice prize is also awarded based on visitor ballots.
Since the first competition in 2005, the Kingston Prize has attracted a growing body of artists, viewers and donors. In 2011, the exhibition was shown in Gananoque, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, and Drummondville QC. Over 61,000 visitors saw the exhibition at the ROM. Many world-class Canadian artists who might have sent their work elsewhere are now sending it to the Kingston Prize competition.
The $20,000 prize provided by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation is a significant prize in the Canadian art world. Individual donors, private companies, and the Town of Gananoque provide the remainder of the funding. Recently, the Kingston School of Art formed a partnership with the Kingston Prize. As is the case for many arts and cultural organizations across Canada, funding is an on-going pressure. “Most of the funds, outside of the prize money awarded by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, come from individual donors to whom we are immensely grateful,” says Julian. “We could not have this competition without them, nor without the committee members who volunteer their time to make all this happen.”
Without a national portrait gallery, the options for a permanent home for the Kingston Prize are somewhat limited. “The Canadian federal government once had plans to build a national portrait gallery but sadly, those plans have been shelved,” says Julian. “Meanwhile, Canada has 20,000 portraits in storage bunkers in the Gatineau.” The national portrait collection can be accessed online at Library and Archives Canada.
This year’s Kingston Prize exhibition will be held at the Firehall Theatre in Gananoque from October 4 to 20, and at the Art Gallery of Calgary from November 2 to December 21. Admission is by donation, and visitors are invited to fill in a ballot for the People’s Choice Award. Winners will be announced just before the Calgary exhibition on November 1.