Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realists

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Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realists (“The Bennett Prize”) is a $50,000 biennial art prize established by American art collectors Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt.[1]

Bennett and Schmidt, who are married, have an extensive collection of works by women figurative realist painters. Their collection, which contains several hundred works, is composed exclusively of works depicting women by women painters. In establishing The Bennett Prize, Bennett and Schmidt expressed a desire to support the type of work they collect.[2]

Endowment and Description[edit]

The Bennett Prize was endowed with a $3 million fund established at The Pittsburgh Foundation in 2016. It is the largest art award ever offered solely to women painters. Seeking to propel the careers of women figurative realist painters, the winner of The Bennett Prize will receive $25,000 annually for two years to allow her to devote the time necessary to mount a solo exhibition of figurative realist paintings, which will open at the Muskegon Museum of Art and then travel the country.[3]

The prize is awarded once every two years to a woman painter whose principal focus is figurative painting done in a realistic style. Despite the Bennetts’ limitation of their collection to paintings of women by women artists, The Bennett Prize is not similarly restricted. Depictions of all genders are permissible, although the artist must be a woman. It is intended that The Bennett Prize will enable the winner to focus on painting while using the proceeds to pay a portion of her expenses. In addition, The Bennett Prize also offers a cash award of $1,000 to each of up to ten (10) finalists selected from among the entrants.


Bennett and Schmidt, whose collection has been featured in American Art Collector, Fine Art Connoisseur magazines and elsewhere, have an extensive collection of works by women figurative realist painters. They have explicitly stated that they believe women have suffered from gender discrimination that has impaired their acceptance as artists. While women painters have produced remarkable artistic work for centuries, they have not received the same degree of acceptance as their male counterparts. This lack of acceptance is demonstrated in a variety of ways — the number of museum exhibitions and solo shows granted to women, the smaller presence of women on visual fine arts faculties, as well as the lower prices paid to women artists for their work. These actions have impaired the recognition of these painters and their work and tended to discourage them at the earliest and most critical moments of their artistic careers. Dr. Schmidt states “We share the view of the Guerrilla Girls that in the art world women have been systematically disadvantaged in both informal as well as institutional terms and that it takes a significant, conscious effort to address the problem.”

In addition to gender discrimination, Bennett and Schmidt have also expressed a desire to promote figurative realism, a genre they believe has been disadvantaged by institutional art organizations: “…over the course of time figurative realism has come to be disfavored in many art schools and universities, sometimes being disdained by academics and others whose preference for abstract or conceptual work has led them to ignore or repudiate the realistic depiction of persons or figures.” Thus, the stated mission of The Bennett Prize is to counteract gender discrimination against women fine art painters and encourage and enable their pursuit of figurative realism.


In order to keep its focus on women figurative realist painters, The Bennett Prize is governed by a series of rules designed to limit the competition to living women fine art painters working in a figurative realist style who are pursuing or seek to pursue careers as full-time working artists. The rules specifically identify six requirements for contestants. Specifically, each contestant must: 1) be a woman; 2) be a fine art painter; 3) paint in a figurative realist style; 4) be, or seek to be, a full-time professional painter; 5) reside at least part of the time in the United States, and 6) not have achieved “full professional recognition.” It is expected that those seeking The Bennett Prize are working at the highest levels of their craft and that their work reflects a significant degree of painterly competency.

The Bennett Prize rules go on to clarify these requirements in several ways. A woman painter may include a transgendered person who identifies as a woman. Fine art painting is defined as the application of any form of pigmented material (e.g. oil paint, acrylic, tempera, encaustic, pastels, colored pencils and watercolor) to a flat, two-dimensional surface, but does not include graphite or charcoal. Figurative realism is defined as painting in a style in which the realistically depicted human figure or figures are central to and a principal focus of the work, such as portraits, figure studies, nudes or scenes depicting human beings in which the focus of the work is a human, although not necessarily identifiable as a particular individual. Contestants must either be working as, or wish and intend to pursue careers as, full-time professional painters and, during the residency, cannot be students. Eligible artists must also reside in the United States at least part of the year and their submitted work must be in the United States at the time of submission.

Perhaps the most important eligibility requirement is the one that states that contestants must be painters who have not achieved full professional recognition. In this regard, The Bennett Prize defines “full professional recognition” as having sold a work of art at retail for more than $25,000. Therefore, it is not open to those artists who have sold any single work of art for, or who have received an art prize or award in an amount in excess of $25,000.


Bennett and Schmidt co-created The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realists with the Center for Philanthropy at The Pittsburgh Foundation, which was selected for its experience in working with donors to establish specifically tailored philanthropic initiatives. In addition, Bennett and Schmidt selected The Pittsburgh Foundation because of its experience with programs that support local artists and artists of color through its Investing in Professional Arts and Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant-making programs which The Pittsburgh Foundation oversees in collaboration with The Heinz Endowments. The Pittsburgh Foundation, working in consultation with Bennett and Schmidt, governs The Bennett Prize, but selection of finalists and the winner is delegated to a jury of four individuals, at least two of whom must be women artists who, but for their experience and success, would meet the eligibility requirements for The Prize.

Selection Process[edit]

Selection of the Bennett Prize winner occurs in a juried competition following a call for entries. The first jury was Steven Allan Bennett, the painters Andrea Kowch and Maria Tomasula, and Art Martin, Director of Exhibitions at the Muskegon Museum of Art (the host museum for the competition). This group made all decisions respecting the selection of both the finalists and the winner. Upon selection, finalists are required to provide representative works to the Muskegon Museum for a traveling exhibition that will showcase their work.

The Exhibitions[edit]

The Bennett Prize seeks to use both the jury selection process as well as the completion of the residency as opportunities to showcase the work of women figurative realist painters. In this respect, two exhibitions are contemplated. First, following the completion of the initial selection process, there will be a Finalists Exhibition of exemplary works of each of the ten selected artists. It is anticipated that the winner will be announced at this exhibition. Thereafter, following the winner’s completion of her Residency, there will be a one-woman exhibition of the work of she created during the Residency. In future years, it is contemplated that the exhibition of the current finalists’ work and that created by the most recent winner who is just completing her residency will occur simultaneously.


The initial call for entries for The Bennett Prize opened in April and closed in September 2018. The jury deliberated and on November 15, 2018, announced the first group of finalists.

Finalists 2019[edit]

The women painters named as finalists for the 2019 Bennett Prize are:

  • Dorielle Caimi, Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Jennifer Campbell, Washington D.C.
  • Kira Nam Greene, Brooklyn, New York
  • Mary Henderson, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Aneka Ingold, Tampa, Florida
  • Stefanie Jackson, Athens, Georgia
  • Daniela Kovacic, Evanston, Illinois
  • Rebecca Leveille, Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Jenny Morgan, Brooklyn, New York
  • Carrie Pearce, Peoria, Illinois

It is expected that the winner of The Prize will be identified from among these finalists at the time the Finalists Exhibition opens at the Muskegon Museum of Art on May 2, 2019. This exhibition is expected to run through September 9, 2019 at the Muskegon Museum and will travel thereafter. Additional venues are expected to include Pittsburgh and Reading, Pennsylvania among several others.

Hononorable Mentions 2019[edit]

In addition to the finalists, the jury, impressed with the quality of the work submitted for the first Prize, elected to call out several contestants with honorable mentions. The artists receiving honorable mentions are:

  • Bryony Bensly, Lunenburg, Massachusetts
  • Shiqing Deng, Brooklyn, New York
  • Michelle Doll, Hoboken, New Jersey
  • Jessica Gordon, Davidson, North Carolina
  • Sasha Gordon, Somers, New York
  • Sylvia Maier, Brooklyn, New York
  • Nora Martin-Hall, Los Angeles, California
  • Felicita Norris, San Jose, California
  • Rebecca Orcutt, Brooklyn, New York
  • Natasha Young, Kealia, Hawaii

While the jury elected to identify honorable mentions as part of the first competition, it is not clear if they will do so in the future. It appears that this will be at the discretion of any future jury after having had the opportunity to review all of the submitted work.

The Future[edit]

In social media, many international artists lamented the existence of the United States residency requirement. In response, Steven Bennett observed that the requirement was designed to avoid customs and shipping difficulties rather than create a citizenship limitation, and indicated that the requirement would be reviewed after the first prize was awarded.


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