When iconoclast, actor, director and all-round outrageous personality Peter Batey died unexpectedly in 2019, he left an enduring gift of humour to Australians, the Bald Archy Prize.
It continues apace, with its 2024 premiere at Watson Arts Centre slated to run until March and Maude, the ancient sulphur-crested cockatoo, reigns supreme as chief and only judge.
Batey, born in Benalla, was variously an actor with the Union Rep in Melbourne, manager of Canberra Rep, inaugural artistic director of the SA Theatre Company and Reg Livermore’s director for shows such as Betty Blokk Buster Follies and Wonderwoman.
But his enduring fame in Australian culture is undoubtedly his personal invention, the Bald Archy Prize.
Initially a slap in the face to the Archibald Prize, which he felt was overblown and snobbish, it quickly attracted satirical artists from around Australia, who sent their entries in to the tiny hamlet of Coolac, near Gundagai, where Batey had founded the Coolac Festival of Fun. After years there, the Archys travelled to Canberra, Sydney, regional NSW and later Victoria and even southern Queensland.
Throughout his colourful life, the one thing Batey didn’t want was to be taken seriously and when the arts establishment started to open arms to the notorious art prize, he was quick to assert that it was not for reviewing.
The competition yielded rare fruit – Prime Minister Paul Keating with a macaw on his shoulder, Pauline Hanson and John Howard in bed Manet-style, and endless portraits of the late media mogul Kerry Packer and cricketer Shane Warne.
You always knew who was in and who was out in public life through the Archys – one year there were 40 portraits of Hanson, then it was Julia Gillard’s turn and later Jacqui Lambie’s.
But Batey wasn’t content with restricting his reach to paintings. For several years he ran the Archibald Gnome Competition for sculpture and one year he had a special section for portraits of a sausage.
For his idea of culture was not a narrow one, but one that dealt with the broader Australian experience and its larrikin vein of humour.
“Outrageous, vulgar, pertinent, bold, clever, satirical, hilarious,” Batey would say.
For several years he tried to convince some of our national institutions to take The Bald Archy collection, for it is an acquisitive award which means that the winning portrait is retained by the organisers.
But his efforts attracted mixed reactions, though none as bad as in his hometown, Benalla, where the prize was considered too vulgar for exhibiting. Nearby village Swanpool picked it up and made over $87,000 from door sales.
Its final resting place is the Museum of the Riverina in Wagga Wagga, which also sponsors the $10,000 prize.
Manager of the Museum of the Riverina Luke Grealy was a long-time friend of Batey through his Wagga activities. He and his staff have taken up the task of housing the Bald Archy collection and organising the annual prize exhibition and tour.
It’s going gangbusters, Grealy tells me. People are beating the doors down at the museum to see last year’s show before it closes in February and there’s only one space left for 2025’s tour.
Some of the well-known artists who’ve submitted entries for 2024 include cartoonist Rocco Fazzari, who won the very first Bald Archy in 1994, the prolific James Brennan and Eric Löbbecke, who’s submitted three entries.
A $3500 fee for exhibiting the show keeps it viable and this year the Bald Archy will travel as far afield as Brewarrina and Coonamble, with its opening in Canberra, home of satire.
Under a canny deal that began years ago – and it’s a huge help to the museum – Watson Arts Centre in Canberra, which has long hosted the annual exhibition, shoulders much of the organising load. The bit of money they make through modest door charges will be shared with the museum.
The Bald Archy Prize 2024, Watson Arts Centre, February 2-March 17. Winner announcement on March 15.
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