"Surreal" was the most commonly uttered description of the evening, although unintentionally surreal would be more accurate. Near the lavish dessert area, a guy painted gold and clad only in a gold lamé Speedo stood in the middle of a fountain, his arms in the air, Atlas-like, as if he were holding up the metal frame globe that hung above him. I kept waiting for him to keel over from the paint like the Bond girl in Goldfinger.

One well-traveled arts professional described the scene as "Something I would have seen in a club in Poland in the 1970s." Another amused observer reported that she witnessed a black-suited catering manager/secret service agent urgently whispering "We're out of pudding!" into her wrist microphone.

The extravagant food was a hot topic of conversation. Last year artists were asked to arrive early and were served a separate buffet in an upstairs lobby near the parking garage entrance. It featured chicken fingers. They were discouraged from partaking in the drinks or the truffle macaroni and cheese served at the main event. This year there were apparently no such attempts at segregation. The champagne and caviar stations were open to the lowly artists. One in-the-know observer estimated that the catering alone probably came in at least around $300,000.

Wendy Wagner won the 2008 prize for her work I Hope I'm Dreaming.
Wendy Wagner won the 2008 prize for her work I Hope I'm Dreaming.

Entertainment cost considerably less. Provided last year by what Houston art collector Ed Cooper referred to as "an elderly duo who played Boston covers," they were back this year with canned tracks, a guitar and a stirring rendition of "Boot Scootin' Boogie." The bar area felt just like a lounge at an airport Holiday Inn. "There was speculation that maybe they were the parents of some of the Hunting people," Cooper revealed.

Suffice to say, it's a weird scene. But, so what? Last year Glasstire founder Rainey Knudson wrote a thoughtful article on (a publication I also work for) called "How to Fix the Hunting Prize." Knudson isn't bothered by what she calls the "Caligula carnival" aspect of the award party. But the prize itself concerns her; she feels it should be, and could be, so much more respected. Knudson points out that the Hunting Prize's cash value is approximately the same as the $50,000 Hugo Boss Guggenheim prize or the £25,000 Turner Prize. But, in addition to the money, those prizes bring invaluable prestige to the awardee and generate the kind of career opportunities that money simply can't buy. Her suggestions for improving the prize ranged from getting rid of the "absurd" single image selection process, to limiting the finalists to ten or so artists, to "[treating] the artists as you would be treated."

This year's $50,000 winner, Wendy Wagner, probably won't have to worry about shipping costs, studio rent or materials for a while. But after the money's gone — about the time those gold guys finally get all that paint scrubbed off — what benefits will remain? Will "2008 Hunting Art Prize winner" be just another line on her résumé?

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