Key Points:

Pity poor Catherine David. She is shortly to leave her Paris home and fly to Auckland to pick a winner from four artists whose installations have been determined by a group of curators as the best that New Zealand art can offer.

Yes, it's time again for the Walters Prize, that biennial attempt by Auckland Art Gallery to prove it is still engaged with the country's contemporary artists.

Chris Saines, the director of the gallery for the past 12 years, says in the catalogue foreword that it sets out to review the work that "arguably made the strongest or even potentially the most lasting impact on current New Zealand practice".

In case we might think that implies some judgment, Saines reassures us the intention is "always to start a conversation about contemporary art, not to establish a canon".

The prize exists because of the generosity of patrons Erika and Robin Congreve, and Jenny Gibbs. The gallery even stands back from the selection. That is left to a panel of jurors.

The jurors this year were Elam lecturer Jon Bywater, Te Papa senior art curator Elizabeth Caldwell, Govett Brewster director Rhana Devenport and Andrew Clifford, curatorial assistant at Auckland University's Gus Fisher Gallery.

The artists they have picked include two blokes getting a second crack at the prize, John Reynolds and Peter Robinson, and two women, Edith Amituanai and Lisa Reihana.

Reynolds' Cloud was made for the 2006 Sydney Biennale, more than 7000 small canvases each containing a word or phrase from Harry Orsman's New Zealand Dictionary.

Robinson offers the polystyrene sculpture he was showing at Artspace at the time of his previous Walters entry.

Amituanai has a suite of large photographs exhibited last year at Anna Miles Gallery, of New Zealand Samoans pursuing professional rugby careers in France.

Reihana's Digital Marae is part of an ongoing project to use new media to depict old gods and goddesses.

The gallery charges a $7 fee for the show, which might have put some people off seeing what is making the strongest impact on current practice.

The comments of those looking while I was there echoed the plaint of Peggy Lee: "Is that all there is?"

So what might David, curator of the 1997 Documenta X in Kassel, Germany, and expert in contemporary Arab art, make of it all?

"As soon as I arrive I'll go to the gallery and see the four artists," says David on the phone from France. She has looked at works by the four on the web and seen a DVD of the jurors discussing their selection, but there is no substitute for the impression in front of or among the work itself.

"It is interesting for me to see, discuss, think about why my colleagues made the decisions they did," she says.

David is keen on the idea of conversation and intellectual engagement. One of the features of her Documenta X were the nightly dialogues between artists, architects, filmmakers and writers from around the world.

"In Documenta you are asked [as curator] to make a statement, and it has to be a challenging statement," she says.

While a lot of contemporary art seems to be about statements, she also wants to see some sort of mediation by the artist, some sense of aesthetics.

"A slogan is not a work. There is something to do after that. Any work which is pretending to be political, without mediation, some second degree, is limited. [Samuel] Beckett is more political than many political writers," she adds. "I bring an understanding of what is political in aesthetics, not just cliche and slogan."

David says there is a lot of confusion about what art is, and it can come down to the artist's ability to articulate their ideas in an aesthetic way.

She says much of what she sees are responses to the times or to outside forces, pure readymades, rather than works of aesthetic application.

"The question for me now is what is the minimum in order to have an artwork, not an object or a pure result of economic and social forces. I want more."

While the art world has become a place of glamour, investment and economic activity, David is asking if it is still a place for debate.

"You look at the press, it's about how much? How big? That's not helping. Young people are not stupid, but they are not given good examples."

The artist David chooses as winner next Friday evening will get $50,000 and the chance to travel to New York and exhibit at the headquarters of Saatchi & Saatchi, whose chief executive, Kevin Roberts, has supported the Walters Prize since its inception.

Two New Zealand-based artists who have never been in a Walters shortlist are already exhibiting in New York this month, not at an advertising agency but in public galleries.

Julian Dashper is in a survey of reductive art put together for MOMA offshoot PS1 by Brooklyn-based collective Minus Space, while Shigeyuki Kihara has a major show of photographs, music, dance and multimedia running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until February.