From Emerging Artist to Breakthrough Artist

By Liza Mattimore, Award Program Manager, Toronto Arts Foundation

Toronto Arts Foundation’s 2021 Awards Panel was the first panel I ever convened in my new role as Strategic Programs Manager, Toronto Arts Council (TAC), and Awards Manager, Toronto Arts Foundation. I love the awards panels because they are a celebration and totally different from grant panels I will facilitate each year for TAC. Grant panels can be solemn affairs, panelists focused on their responsibilities, to allocate, sometimes, millions of dollars in funding, and provide constructive feedback to applicants. But awards panels have a different energy – the atmosphere is jovial. Panelists enthusiastically express their awe and admiration for the nominees. After all, each year the Foundation receives nominations for some of the very best artists and culture sector creators in our city. 

But over the years the same question kept coming up from nominators and awards panelists. Indeed, it was one of the first questions I asked, in one of my very first meetings. Why is there an age restriction on the Emerging Artist Award? To be considered for our Emerging Artist Award, an artist couldn’t be above 35. Together with the Foundation I undertook a review of the age restriction.  During the review process I found out that dozens of institutions all over the world were grappling with this same question. Over 150 writers in Canada petitioned The Writer’s Trust to remove age restrictions on their Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Their message was clear - age requirements for early career artists’ prizes exclude anyone who may have started their arts practice later in life. But more insidiously, age restrictions on awards disenfranchise Indigenous artists, Black artists and other artists of colour, women, artists from 2SLGTBQIAP communities, those living with mental illness, disabled artists, and newcomers to Canada. The UK’s prestigious Turner Prize removed their age restriction in 2017, declaring that the intention of the award was clear in the criteria and age would no longer be a factor in determining how advanced an artist is in their career. The Sobey’s Prize here in Canada also followed suit. For me, there were also practical challenges. We do not have a mechanism in place to verify age. We’ve never asked nominators for the age of a nominee, and the thought of doing so made me uncomfortable.

So, after much reflection and consultation we at Toronto Arts Foundation decided to rename our Emerging Artist Award to Breakthrough Artist Award, and remove any age restrictions for the 2022 Award cycle. We thought it was important to rename the award because it helped distinguish this prize from others and also recalibrated the focus away from age. At its root, the newly renamed Breakthrough Artist Award is about giving an early career artist a slingshot forward. It’s about recognizing an up-and-comer for what they have done and what they hope to do in the future.  Toronto Arts Foundation is proud to aid in the recipients’ momentum and provide support for their future endeavours and I am relieved that I’ll never have to awkwardly tell panelists that, “Yes there is an age restriction, but no I don’t know anyone’s age,” again!