Could Your Work Be the Winner?

Dorothy Moss thinks so. As director of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, she coordinates the triennial competition that brings in more than 3,000 entries from artists working throughout the United States and its territories. There is no predicting what she’ll receive.

In past years, entries have ranged from video projections to works on canvas to a sculpture crafted from 100 pounds of rice. Artists may offer a true likeness of their subject or deconstruct the self or the sitter in a purely abstract composition. From the professional to the self-taught, from emerging to established talents, the artists have one goal: to wow the jurors with either a depiction of themselves or someone they have physically encountered. With so few limitations and no preconceptions about what makes a winner, Moss, who is associate curator in the Portrait Gallery’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, believes that everyone has a fair chance.

The winner of the competition receives $25,000 and a commission from the Portrait Gallery to create a likeness of a noted American. Bo Gehring (above), the 2013 recipient of this honor, recently completed a video portrait of jazz artist Esperanza Spalding for the collection. Cash prizes are also awarded to the second and third place winners, as well as up to four additional entrants for commendable work. And one of the greatest perks is that the Portrait Gallery exhibits works by the top fifty finalists.

Moss acknowledges that the excitement of the artists as they view their works installed at the Portrait Gallery is exhilarating, but it is also a learning experience for even the most seasoned of curators: “There is always something unusual that changes our perception of portraiture and sheds light on our permanent collections.” For the next competition, in 2016, the competition show will also travel to other venues.

Why would an already acclaimed museum like the National Portrait Gallery put its energy and resources into sponsoring such an open competition? Apparently, a former volunteer named Virginia Outwin Boochever wondered—why not? Boochever, a portrait enthusiast, made a generous gift to endow this program that fosters innovation. And it has turned out to be a valuable experience for both entrants and staff. Moss explains that “the competition brings public awareness to under recognized and little-known artists and allows curators to examine the broader concept of identity and see new trends in portraiture.”

With a pool of submissions from a country as large as the United States, the material mirrors the diversity and complexity of our citizens—and our democracy. It, like the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection, puts a face on who we are both as individuals and as a nation.

The jurors of the 2016 competition are looking to be surprised, impressed, moved, and entertained by the submissions. In addition to Moss, they include Kim Sajet, director of the Portrait Gallery; Brandon Brame Fortune, the Portrait Gallery’s chief curator; Dawoud Bey, a photographer and professor of art and distinguished artist at Columbia College in Chicago; Helen Molesworth, chief curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York magazine; and John Valadez, a painter, muralist, and photographer in Los Angeles.

Can you envision your work on the walls of a national museum? If you have the creativity and passion to reshape the future of portraiture, click here to submit your entry electronically. The due date for the 2016 competition is November 30, 2014.

- Amy Pastan, for the National Portrait Gallery