The packer’s prize


Dear Artist,

My picture framer of the past 25 years, once my dad’s, turned off his air nail gun for a chinwag: “What do you think of this barn?” he asked, gesturing toward an oil in for framing, a bucolic scene painted all over with a very small brush. I squinted past a tight foreground of scotch broom and looked around at other paintings in the shop, stealth in their charm or worldly importance and leaning in the shadows amongst their waiting moldings. I asked him how many paintings he’d thought he’d framed over the years and suggested that he’d probably seen more stuff than almost anyone. A hockey and hunting guy, his eye was good and fair, and he was always quick to point out quality.


“Hall of Fame — Portrait of Pat Corrigan”
oil on canvas 198.5 x 168 cm
by Joanna Braithwaite

Each year at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, a special prize has been awarded by the museum’s head packer, Steve Peters. Called The Packing Room Prize, it’s attached to the museum’s larger, more prestigious, $100,000.000 Archibald Portrait Prize. For 26 years, Steve, along with his receiving, unpacking and hanging staff, has awarded $1500.00 to the painting “that looks good and looks just like the sitter.”


“Jimmy Barnes (title fight)”
by Jamie Preisz
Archibald exhibition
Packing Room Prize 2018

While the Archibald and its accompanying exhibition are wildly popular — and often controversial — Steve’s prize has grown to be a favourite among museum visitors and non-art-world types. In 2017, Steve announced his final choice — he was retiring after 40 years in the packing room. His last winner would be a portrait of journalist Lisa Wilkinson by Central Coast artist Peter Smeeth. “I looked at the painting and thought, that’s a great likeness,” said Steve. “It’s how Lisa looks every morning on the telly.”


“The Serenity of Susan Carland”
oil and walnut alkyd on wood panel
103 x 83 cm
by Andrew Lloyd Greensmith



PS: “I have the simplest of tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.” (Oscar Wilde)

Esoterica: Administered by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Archibald is awarded for “the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date fixed by the trustees for sending in the pictures.” It was first awarded in 1921 after the museum received a bequest from the late editor of the Australian magazine The Bulletin, J.F Archibald. To date, The Packing Room Prize winner and the Archibald Prize winner have never been the same artist. “It’s a bit more akin to what our everyday visitors might appreciate and enjoy,” said Archibald curator Anne Ryan, when asked about the 2018 Packing Room Prize winning portrait of Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes, painted by first time finalist Jamie Preisz. Jamie was amongst 794 Archibald entries, 58 who made it to the finals. Brett Cuthbertson, the new head packer and the new last word on who wins the Packing Room Prize said, “To be honest, when the work arrived, I’d just been asked by a journalist who I’d like to see painted this year. Fair dinkum, I said Barnsey would be great.”

The winner of the 2018 Archibald Prize is announced today, Friday, May 11th and the exhibition of finalists is on view at the Art Gallery of NSW until September 19th.

Need framing? Jim McAdam at Magnum Frames in Vancouver, BC can be reached here.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Competition is for the competent.” (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)




  1. Anyone know what a head packer is? Not someone who packs heads, I’m guessing.

    Presumably it’s one of those terms that hasn’t made it over here to Britain – like janitor, perhaps. Here the janitor is called a caretaker which must sound a bit weird/hilarious to others. ‘Two nations divided by a common language’ as Churchill commented.

    • The Art Gallery of New South Wales has a large team of packers ( or rather Unpackers ) who receive, unpack and then parade the paintings past the preliminary judges who decide which paintings make the finals. The winning painting is judged by the trustees of the gallery. There are 11 trustees and two of them must be knowledgable in the arts. Consequently the choices of finalists and winner are often controversial and it becomes a media circus thereby creating interest with the general public.

  2. Last year I delivered a portrait for consideration to the Archibald Prize. It is one of the few portrait prizes where you present the painting and not just a photo. Didn’t get selected but at least it was seen by the trustees. Now I am looking for my next sitter for next year.

  3. Chris Lathrop on

    I worked for a local framing operation where I packed framed paintings for shipping to the customer (usually galleries in New York City in this case). I’m assuming that is what you’re referring to?

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