After 34 years as chief packer for the Art Gallery of NSW, Steve Peters is unwrapping his last Archibald Prize entries, writes Penny Durham
‘It would be nice if we had a touring exhibition of Packing Room Prize winners all around Australia, and I could go on the junket — I mean the educational tour,” says Steve Peters. “They could bill it as ‘ What portraits are supposed to look like’.”
On the Monday morning of the craziest week of the year at the Art Gallery of NSW — Archibald submissions week — Peters is the quiet, no-nonsense eye of the hurricane. In his trademark pink shirt and with Mentos to hand, the packer-in-chief has been here since 5.30am and will put in 12-hour days for the final time. After handling — and fearlessly judging — tens of thousands of portraits of Australian celebrities during his career, he is also unwrapping not one but two portraits of himself. One of them is set here, in the confines of the gallery, surrounded by art, while the other came to life over two days in a very different environment, several hours away. The subject of both portraits has found himself in the spotlight because he’s retiring after 34 years in the job, and 26 as the all-powerful judge of the Archibalds’ famous consolation, the Packing Room Prize.
“The last thing I ever want to see again is a piece of bubble wrap,” says Peters, 60, who is craving sleep-ins, time with his grandchildren, golf and travel. He has in fact just returned from five weeks in Europe: London, Berlin, Florence, Venice, Ljubljana, Paris, Avignon, Lyons, Salzburg. Food and wine were the focus — not art. “Bah. You’ve seen one piece of art, you’ve seen ’em all, right?” he says with a wink.
By the end of the week 2154 canvases will have arrived for the Archibald (portrait), Wynne (landscape) and Sulman (genre, subject or mural) painting prizes. Some others inevitably will arrive at deadline on Friday afternoon, still wet, and be rejected.
All the rest have to be catalogued, presented for judging and kept track of, the rejects collected, the finalists eventually transported offsite, repacked and shipped back to the artists (preferably the ones who painted them — “they get a bit funny otherwise”).
In the ballet of flying dollies and floating bubble wrap, it’s portraits with instant impact that win the approval of the packers. They always had their favourites, Peters says, but the Packing Room Prize became a thing back in 1992 when SH Ervin Gallery came to harvest paintings for its Salon des Refuses show.
“We had this big picture of [former Labor foreign minister] Gareth Evans resting against the door. They came in and said, ‘Well that’s out for a start.’ I said, as a throwaway line, ‘You’re kidding — that won the packing room prize.’ Well bugger me, they picked it [as a finalist].
“The next day, publicity here said: ‘Tomorrow you’re going to be on the Andrew Olle breakfast show.’ I thought, ‘Bloody opened my big mouth here.’ ”
The Archibald Prize attracts some “serious” art, and also much of what The Australian’s notoriously stringent critic Christopher Allen describes frankly as “kitsch”.
But Peters knows what he likes and has a refreshingly unselfconscious set of criteria for good portraiture. He gives short shrift to the abstract, the obscure, the unrecognisable.
“For us here in the packing room the work has got to look like the subject, and the subject has to be someone popular who the average Joe can recognise: there’s some wonderful paintings made of doctors, whoever, that are wonderful works but the average person wouldn’t know who they are. But No 1, the work’s got to be good, which knocks out 94 per cent of them.” The common touch? “More a commonsense touch,” he says.
Of the AGNSW’s permanent collection, he loves the old Australian galleries best. “Not a fan of contemporary art. We had a Biennale here one year and silly bloody Yoko Ono put in these bloody trees. We had them in rows. We looked like a franchise of Flower Power.”
“Silly” entries to the Archibald, Wynne and hell, I’ve Sulman have been numerous. Sometimes, he says, “you shake your head and think, ‘mate’ ”.
“There are some very nice artists and some who are well switched on. But some are just in another world: they don’t read instructions, they come in with a painting that’s still wet, they leave hooks on the back of the work, then they come in and want their photo taken with their work — hold up everything in here while you take their photograph. Hello? It’s on every year, you’ve had 12 months to do it — take your bloody photo first.
“That’s what you say to yourself, anyway. We try to be as obliging as we can.”
But it’s the palaver with trucks and dollies and packing tape and bubble wrap and artists’ demands that make the prize special (well, that and the money attached: $100,000 for the Archibald, $50,000 for the Wynne, $40,000 for the Sulman). It’s the only art prize in Australia judged in person without any reference to digital copies, says AGNSW head of exhibitions Charlotte Cox.
“Others are judged on a jpeg at first and cut down to a shortlist, which is then viewed in person, but this is the only prize in Australia that is judged in person from the get go,” Cox says. “You can’t see scale or texture or true colour [in a jpeg] and sometimes it’s those nuances that make a work really special. Like the portrait of Barry Humphries [last year’s Archibald winner by Louise Hearman] that had a little sequin on his eyebrow that sparkled in the right light — you never pick that up in a digital image.
“It’s an expensive venture to get the work
Steve Peters says he has been fortunate to unpack the likes of Monet, van Gogh and Picasso
Peters with Betina FauvelOgden, whose portrait of George Calombaris, centre, won the Packing Room Prize last year; Peters with Tim Storrier and his painting
The Member, Dr Sir Leslie Colin Patterson KCB AO, which won the same prize in 2014