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News / April 1, 2013

Audain Prize Winner Takao Tanabe on the Importance of Art Awards in Canada

Senior BC artists Gathie Falk and Takao Tanabe have each won a $30,000 Audain Prize honouring lifetime achievement in the visual arts.

The 10th annual awards will be formally handed out at a ceremony April 4 at the BC Law Courts.

Interestingly, the 86-year-old Tanabe—best known for his painting practice, which has extended from the 1940s to the present day—is an artist some regard as being fundamental to the establishment of contemporary art-awards in Canada.

In the 1990s, Tanabe campaigned for the Governor General’s Awards to be extended into the visual arts. (At the time, in terms of arts pursuits, they were only granted for performing arts and literature.)

“It took four or five years to get it off the ground,” he tells Canadian Art. “It went on and on and on.”

With money being frequently cited to Tanabe as an obstacle in establishing Governor General’s Awards in the visual arts, he tried to raise funds for the cause.

He says he even approached Michael Audain—a prominent philathropist in the BC arts both then and now—and asked him if he was willing to support the cause of a GG-endorsed national art prize.

“He said, ‘Sorry, Tak, I’m only interested in BC artists.’” Tanabe recalls.

Even if Tanabe didn’t get the cash infusion he was hoping for, it’s possible his advocacy stuck with Audain: a couple of years after the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts did debut in 2000—when the Canada Council found sufficient monies elsewhere—Audain created the prizes that are being handed out this week.

Even today, when dozens of art prizes like the Sobey Award and the Grange Prize populate the national art landscape, Tanabe says such efforts are important.

Without prizes, Tanabe says, “groups remain in obscurity. You have a little bit of local recognition if you do a play or publish a book or have a show, but there are a lot of great people struggling in the dark all the time.”

Accordingly, Tanabe is taking his prize money and paying it forward to another less-recognized group: student artists. His $30,000 will be added to a scholarship fund that supports small grants at five art schools nationwide.

Also to be recognized on April 4 is Elizabeth McIntosh, who has won the 2013 VIVA Award presented by the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation. It comes with a sum of $12,000.

The Shadbolt Foundation will also be awarding a new prize for curators—the Alvin Balkind Curator’s Prize—to Helga Pakasaar of Presentation House Gallery. That prize also provides $12,000 in support.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via