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Guests arriving for the 2008 Hunting Art Prize gala handed their car keys off to embarrassed-­looking valets sporting red and green "artist" berets. As they stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the Decorative Center, a guy in a Roman soldier-style miniskirt blew a horn, while the toga-clad guy next to him unrolled a "scroll" and read aloud:

"Friends, Patrons, Countrymen, lend me your ears...come I to welcome you to the Hunting Art Prize by order of Caesar Pontius Maximus."

Who was this Caesar/High Priest? Richard H. Hunting, chairman of the international oil services company Hunting PLC.
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This is the third year the $50,000 Hunting Art Prize has been awarded in Texas, after 25 years in Britain. From the very first year here in Houston, the prize has generated talk, some positive and a lot negative. While giving 50 grand to an artist is about as much of a financial sacrifice for an oil company as buying a Chiclet from a street kid in Mexico is for the average tourist, $50,000 is enough to radically alter an artist's life. Hunting PLC could have spent the money gilding the toilet in the company jet, but they have kindly chosen to give it to support an artist. So why is it such a hot topic?

It's the way in which Hunting PLC is selecting the winner and presenting the award that has alternately amused, bemused and irritated the Texas art ­community.

The first year it was limited to Houston artists, and Francesca Fuchs won the money. She wore a smart-ass T-shirt by a British artist to the awards ceremony; it read "It's not easy being a famous artist." Irony is apparently not Hunting PLC's thing. The next year, artists were instructed to arrive at the event in business attire.

The prize is awarded based on an image of one work by the artist. The artwork must be two-dimensional and nonphoto­graphic. This means the entries are mostly paintings. Any artist in Texas can apply — from Sunday bluebonnet painters to Whitney Biennial participants. And they do — hey, almost all of us have one painting somewhere, even if it's from a high-school art class 20 years ago. It's like the lottery, and the price of the ticket is a digital image of a painting. Two juries make the selections; this year the first one winnowed down the almost 900 entries to 128 finalists. The second jury picks the final winner. Unfortunately, with more than 100 finalists, a lot of crappy work makes it through, so being a "finalist" in the crowded field doesn't exactly feel like the honor it should.

The lucky 128 were required to pay for the crating and shipping of their own work. But one of them wasn't quite so lucky. After Joan Fabian paid for her work to be crated and shipped, she was disqualified — not by the jurors, as she was originally told, but apparently by someone on the Hunting Prize staff. She was informed it was because the work is too three-dimensional, but the prevailing theory is that it's because her work contains cutout letters that spell the word "WAR." Patterning on the letters makes them hard to read, and the word is easy to miss. No doubt someone finally figured it out when they opened the crate. There is a disclaimer on the entry Web site that states, "Any artwork that includes the use of bodily fluids, degradation of religion or government, and/or depiction of sexual acts or any other medium, presentation or topic objectionable to Hunting PLC will be automatically disqualified from the competition." But not reimbursing the artist for her expenses seems kinda mean and petty. (Some accounts list the number of finalists at 114, indicating others were cut in the ninth hour.)
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Arriving guests got to meet "Caesar" in person after a stroll beneath a cardboard and Styrofoam Romanesque loggia draped with fake foliage leading up to the Decorative Center's lobby. Richard Hunting stood inside in a receiving line greeting the hundreds of attendees.

To the left of Hunting was a woman painted white and wearing a toga. She stood motionless, posed like classical statuary. To the right of Hunting was a real live artist making a painting! Sporting a beret, the artist, Anthony Butkovich (who has done illustrations for the Houston Press), was busily painting abstracted portraits of a model reclining on a chaise lounge in an evening gown and feather boa. As the artist was occupied, an assistant offered me his card. Apparently this gig was presented to Butkovich as a great promotional opportunity.

The event's promotional value was also touted to the 128 — er, 127, er, 114 — finalists for the prize. In addition to being coached on their wardrobe, artists were asked to stand next to their work to "to sell themselves and their artwork."

I haven't heard of artists actually selling work at these events, but maybe someone has. The art is awkwardly hung in hallways designated with names like "Michelangelo" or "Picasso." As far as I can tell, the artists just stand around feeling really uncomfortable while oil company executives walk around muttering things like "interesting." A collector heavily involved with artists remarked that she felt sorry for them, saying it was like "they were on display in a zoo."

"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.

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.
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Suffice to say, it's a weird scene. But, so what? Last year Glasstire founder Rainey Knudson wrote a thoughtful article on Glasstire.com (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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