In 2016, when collectors Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt and Steven Bennett first conceptualized The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters — a $50,000 juried prize awarded to a promising woman painter — they discovered that nobody was interested in another art prize.

“When we introduced the concept to museums and curators,” says Schmidt, who founded the Prize with Bennett in 2019, “the response was yawning indifference. Figurative realism was still considered dead while abstraction, installation art, and video were vogue. Plus, women artists hadn’t really hit the radar.”

But that was then, and this is now. Today, interest in art by women has soared and realism is back, creating a buzz that everyone can hear. The biennial Bennett Prize and accompanying Rising Voices exhibition are in their third iteration, and its founders have their instincts ratified.

The Bennett Prize: Rising Voices 3 is on view through September 10 at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Michigan, showcasing 30 works by the current 10 finalists of the 2023 Bennett Prize. Running alongside this exhibition is The Lessons I Leave You, a solo show by Ayana Ross of Georgia, who won the 2021 Bennett Prize. Ross says her show “will depict the divine in everyday moments.” Both exhibitions will travel the country, visiting New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee

Schmidt says the current prize show “ranges from hard realism to soft impressionism.” Juror-artist Zoey Frank adds, “It’s exciting to see the artists in this show working at the boundaries of what representation can be…” Echoing this point, juror Joseph Rosa observes that “the vast range of aesthetics in this work is fantastic.”

Among the founders’ goals is a desire to promote the work of all the finalists and to generate interest in figurative art among collectors, galleries, and museums. As a result, the previous 18 finalists and two winners have seen demand for their work increase significantly, and their sale prices have grown by nearly half. These women have exhibited in 24 solo shows and 67 group shows. Their work has been published in over 50 feature articles and over half have gained gallery representation.

“We’ve had a front-row seat at the coming out party for a whole new group of women painters,” says Bennett gleefully.

For full details about The Bennett Prize, visit

To learn more about the Rising Voices 3 traveling exhibition, visit

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Kyla Zoe Rafert, “Dreams of Thalassa” (2021), oil, acrylic, and serigraphy on panel, 14 x 11 inches (courtesy Lisa Cave)
Linda Infante Lyon, “Sovereign of the North” (2022), oil on panel, 30 x 30 inches (courtesy the artist)
Monica Ikegwu, “NiaJune” (2022), oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches (courtesy The Gregg J. Justice III Collection)

The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Muskegon Museum of Art are proud partners of The Bennett Prize®.