Erin Shirreff. Hank Willis Thomas. Sarah Anne Johnson. Gauri Gill. These are just some of the artists who have won the AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize over the past decade. Each of them was part of a major award, unique in Canada—one where Canadian and international artists competed and exhibited side-by-side, with final winner decisions made by a free public vote.
But no more names will be added to the AIMIA | AGO winners’ list moving forward. This week—the same week that last year saw a heralded announcement of the prize shortlist—an AGO spokesperson confirmed that 2017 was the prize’s final year. The spokesperson said there was no comment available on the matter, but indicated that a major symposium and publication accompanying the 2017 edition served as a suitable capstone to the endeavour.
When the prize launched in 2008—then known as the Grange Prize—it was part of a burgeoning field of art-related prizes in Canada. In 2000, major annual prizes for artists in Canada were few, with the publicly funded Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts dominating the scene.
Then, with the advent of the Sobey Art Award in 2002, a variety of new, often more privately funded, prizes entered the national arts landscape. These included the addition of a national prize for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition in 2004 and the inception of the Kingston Prize for Portraiture in 2005. In 2007, keeping pace, the Sobey Award switched from biannual to annual. In 2008, there was the Grange launch, and in 2010, there was the kickoff of the Scotiabank Photography Award (for senior-level Canadian artists). More recently, there was the 2015 launch of the Emerging Digital Arts Award with EQ Bank and the Salt Spring National Art Prize. Over recent years, the Hnatyshyn Foundation also expanded the range of awards it offered, and as the prize field grew, organizations like the Sobey and others increased prize monies significantly—in some cases doubling them. Also this past year, the Scotiabank New Generation Photography Award was created.
Granted, the AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize, as it became known in 2013, isn’t the first privately sponsored visual arts prize from that emergent field to be terminated. The RBC Emerging Artist People’s Choice Award, which was co-produced with the Gardiner Museum, seems to have also wound down after 2015; it, like AIMIA | AGO, was a prize decided by popular vote.
While there was emphasis in the early and mid-2000s on the benefits that could accrue for museums and public galleries by collaborating with corporate sponsors on prizes, the ending of the AIMIA | AGO Photograhy Prize is also perhaps a chance to reflect on the limitations of depending upon corporate funding in the arts. The Grange Prize became the AIMIA | AGO Prize at a time when AIMIA was ramping up acquisitions overseas, having just acquired a Mexican loyalty points program and soon to acquire a Spanish one. A few years prior, it acquired a leading UK business in this area. The photo prize, at that time, aligned with the company’s international vision. But in 2017, AIMIA was informed that a key partner, Air Canada, was dropping out of a deal. In February 2018, it ended up selling Nectar, the UK company it had acquired long ago. With the company in transition and likely looking to sell, the AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize is an art event now lost, too, in the corporate shuffle.
Though an AGO spokesperson said that the prize ending was mentioned on social media last year, AGO | AIMIA Photography Prize Facebook page is still up, with no such mention visible.
This article was corrected on August 2, 2018. The original stated that Aeroplan, not Air Canada, was a key partner in the deal AIMIA was looking to make recently.