Face to FACE with Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt, founders of The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters

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If the Baltimore Museum of Art’s news of wanting to only buy works by female artists in 2020, taking a stand on the gender imbalance within the institution, has somehow shaken up the art market, certainly, the initiative did not surprise Steven Alan Bennett and his wife, and co-curator, Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt. 

Art collectors from San Antonio, Texas, Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt began collecting works of art made by women long ago, even establishing the prestigious “The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters“. 

I had the pleasure of personally meeting the Bennett’s at the FACE -Figurative Art Convention and Expo of which they are sponsors as fervent supporters of figurative realism. The annual convention is organized by Peter Trippi and Eric Rhoads, and this year is in its fourth edition (to be held in Baltimore, from October 29 to November 1, 2020) about which they say: “Our desire to support realism is the same reason why we decided to support FACE: the annual convention whose target audience is made up of practicing figurative artists. We attended conventions and discovered a very well-structured and inspiring agenda that includes lessons, demonstrations and opportunities to build relationships with other artists to improve one’s practice.”

Steven Alan Bennett, Peter Trippi and Dr.Elaine Melotti Schmidt

Returning to the Bennett Collection, it was Steven Alan Bennett, with a past as a manager behind him, who ten years ago decided to set aside his collection of posters and photographs and began to seriously collect works of art that, after careful studies and research in the field, he decided to focus on figurative realism performed exclusively by women. A choice perfectly shared by his wife, Dr.Elaine Melotti Schmidt, a philanthropist with a special predisposition for children with disabilities and in poor condition.

The reasons that led Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt to this stylistic choice are essentially two: first of all the idea of supporting women figurative realist artists, who are today very numerous and very talented, and the intention to give back to figurative realist painting the importance it has lost over time. 

If we analyze history, with the exception of Artemisia Gentileschi, Sofonisba Anguissola, Berthe Morisot, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and a few others, women have always played a marginal role in the art world compared to that played by men. To be considered more credible and to be remunerated to the same extent as men, they even had to use male pseudonyms in order to be able to sell their works. 

The second reason is due to the almost absentee role of museums, galleries but also educational institutions that have completely neglected figurative realism in favor of modern and contemporary art: “we feel that figurative realism is, wrongfully, a stepchild in Big Art. This should not be the situation, after all, figurative realist painting is the bedrock of art history and features the human form in all its diversity. It has an important role to play in a society struggling to understand human differences and commonalities, including race, gender and social status. Consequently, it is our hope that The Bennett Prize will contribute to the realism of today and enable it to be accepted in the family as an equal”, Mr. Bennett and Dr. Melotti Schmidt said.

The winner of The Bennett Prize 2019 Aberration by Aneka Ingold.

The Bennett Collection currently boasts almost 200 pieces that the couple have composed and grow following magazines that feature realism, websites – including Artsy – personally following the artists on social networks and getting in touch with gallerists and curators of museums. They have also signed up to a  web service that alerts them when sales and auctions that include works by artists they are interested in happen, which is extremely useful as it alerts them when paintings by specific artists are for sale, both in auctions and galleries . 

Finally, they actively participate in the various fairs and exhibitions scattered around America to discover new artists. It’s not hard during Miami Art Week in December, to come across these two exquisite people.

Speaking about their Collection, Mr. Bennett and Dr. Melotti Schmidt said: “The number of pieces in the Collection allows us to rotate pieces as we acquire new ones or decide to try a different arrangement on the walls. We also have a number of works out on loan and we are pleased that we can do this, as it helps promote the artists and the genre. How lucky are we to live with “the girls!”

It Was The Sounds of Their Feet by Alea Chapin, 2014. Oil on Linen. 84″ x 120″

The love of figurative realist art and the need to offer an incentive for the world of female pictorial art by offering visibility to talented artists has prompted Bennett and Dr. Melotti Schmidt to establish in 2018 the “The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters”, currently the most lucrative prize awarded to women for painting. The first jury consisted of four people: Steven Alan Bennett, Art Martin, the Chief Curator of the Muskegon Museum of Art, the artist Andrea Kowch and the artist and professor of art at the University of Notre Dame, Maria Tomasula. The Prize in economic terms is $50,000 for the winner, allowing her to work independently for a fair period of time, and $1000 each to the other nine finalists. The award was granted in perpetuity through the payment of 3 million dollars to The Pittsburgh Foundation – one of the nation’s oldest philanthropic centers. The President and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, defined the Bennett Prize “as among the most creative and exciting examples of how our Foundation and its Center for Philanthropy works with donors to turn their ideas into tangible, innovative projects”, said Pittsburgh Foundation President & CEO Maxwell King. An award with international recognition that goes beyond monetary value and that is realized for both the winner and the finalists to promote their careers and to receive professional recognition that guarantees visibility not only through the press, social media and a catalogue dedicated to the exhibition, but also through the exhibition in the Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan, which will be followed by a tour of museums in the United States of America. Currently, artists selected as finalists each have at least two pieces included in the finalist exhibition, Rising Voices by the Muskegon Museum of Art and their works are for sale. 

White Fives by Margaret Bowland, 2012

“The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters” is a competition open to realist-figurative artists who have never sold a work of art worth more than 25,000 dollars. The condition, to be accepted, is that the work presented must be painted in a style in which the human figure, male or female, is realistically represented at the center of the work. All artistic genres that use pigmented material (oil, acrylic, egg tempera, encaustic, crayons, colored pencils, watercolor, etc.) on a two dimensional surface can participate, therefore not including sculpture, photography or installations, videos and performance. For all specifications, we recommend that you visit the website  www.thebennettprize.org

After encouraging the artists to participate in The Bennett Prize, as Dr. Melotti Schmidt said during the presentation speech at FACE 2019: “if the participant does not win, it is important that she does not get discouraged but builds her stamina and her grit by participating again”. 

Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt’s speech at FACE 2019

Finalist of The Bennett Prize in 2018, Aneka Ingold, of Tampa, won the 2019 edition: her powerful and expressive work explored the experiences of women through time, culture and history. 

If for Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt the present is certain, the future is no different and they have a clear idea of where their Collection will go. The hope of Mr. Bennett and Melotti Schmidt is to donate the entire collection to a single museum that guarantees the full exhibition, if this does not happen the pieces will then be donated to multiple museums whose missions respond to the intentions of the two collectors. But for this there is time and the future is not yet written, in the meantime, based on the great example set by the Bennetts, in the year of the centenary of the right of suffrage to women, all the arts organizations of Berks County, Pennsylvania, will honor the artists with a celebration of women in the arts. 

Waiting to participate in FACE 2020, in which Mr. Bennett and Dr. Melotti Schmidt will talk about “The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters” we just have to wait and see history, the one written, or rather, painted, by women, take its course.

(On the title: detail of Portrait of the Collectors, Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt, by Katie O’Hagan, 2016, Oil on linen, 78 x 58”)


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