Few events create as much buzz in the arts community as the Mary Sawyers Baker and Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape prizes. Establishment of the annual awards qualifies as one of the most significant local arts developments of the past decade, up there with the creation of Station North and the ascension of the local music scene. That’s because the awards are about more than putting cash in pockets. The Baker and Sondheim prizes resonate beyond their pools of money, by providing much-needed exposure and a means of connecting working artists to civic institutions such as The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), The Walters Art Museum, and even Maryland Public Television (MPT).
“These prizes have galvanized the artistic community,” says BMA director Doreen Bolger.
Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, concurs, calling the prizes “transformative” and noting how they “help create an environment that encourages artists to live and work here."
“It’s nice to know there are awards that are specific to people working in this region,” says artist Renèe Stout, winner of last year’s Sondheim. “Prizes and foundations are often based in New York, and, as a result, New York artists get most of the attention and exposure. These awards are important to this area, because they provide opportunities for our artists.”
At this point, the Baker and Sondheim prizes feel so ingrained in the culture of the arts scene that it’s hard to imagine that neither existed 10 years ago. Back in the day, the BMA sponsored prizes, awarding, for example, its “Purchase Prize” to Martin Puryear in 1962, its “Prize for Painting” to Amalie Rothschild in 1950, and prizes to Morris Louis in 1949 and 1950. But that practice was discontinued in 1985. As the 21st century dawned, Baltimore lacked a major art prize.
The Sondheim came first in 2006. Produced by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), it was named for the philanthropic couple, funded through various foundations and organizations (including Abell, M&T Bank, and Alex. Brown), and modeled after Bethesda’s Trawick Prize, a juried art competition begun in 2002, and other similar awards. “They were definitely the ones that got it rolling in this area,” says artist Gary Kachadourian, who worked for BOPA at the time and helped design the Sondheim process. “The selection process is quite similar with the main difference being that we decided to use jurors from outside the area, while Trawick uses local jurors.”
The Sondheim draws from a regional talent pool. Though many people believe the Sondheim is strictly a Baltimore prize, it’s actually open to visual artists from D.C. and parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Trawick takes a similar approach by widening its sphere of applicants beyond Montgomery County, and its list of finalists usually includes a few Baltimoreans. In fact, Baltimore’s Lillian Bayley Hoover won last year’s “Best In Show” and pocketed the $10,000 prize money.
The Sondheim, which awards a $25,000 top prize and $2,500 to the remaining finalists, also features a public exhibit and awards ceremony, like the Trawick. The BMA usually hosts the exhibition and ceremony leading up to Artscape, but this year, everything moves to the Walters because of renovations at the BMA. The awards ceremony takes place July 13, and MICA presents an exhibition of work by Sondheim semi-finalists from Artscape weekend (July 19-21) through August 4.
But the BMA will continue hosting its exhibition for the Mary Sawyers Baker awards, which, like the Sondheim, were named in honor of a local philanthropist. The Baker award—which began in 2009, after the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund narrowed the focus of its giving to arts and culture exclusively—differs from the Sondheim in key ways: It gives $25,000 to three artists, narrows its geographic region to the Baltimore metropolitan area, and broadens its parameters to include all disciplines. The winners are announced on MPT’s ArtWorks show.
Artists nominate themselves by creating a webpage of their work on the Baker website. “It’s a very egalitarian and democratic process,” says Melissa Warlow, executive director of the Baker Fund’s grants program. “When we created this, we wanted all artists to be able to put their work on the site as a way of exposing it locally, nationally, and internationally.”
As a result, the Baker site has become a sprawling, interactive document of the Baltimore arts scene, an archive accessible to anyone around the world. Warlow notes that Google Analytics recently showed that visitors from 181 countries had logged on, and they included museum curators, university academics, graphic designers, and reps from companies such as Dreamworks. “A lot of artists use it as a mobile gallery,” says Warlow, “and they’re getting great exposure.”
Local judges from various disciplines select the Baker finalists and winners of “b-grants,” which give $1,000 to emerging artists. Up to three national judges ultimately choose the $25,000 winners, and, though Baker organizers have taken flack for not disclosing their identities, Warlow says the judges remain anonymous “for the integrity of the process. We don’t want people lobbying for the prize.”
The Baker has awarded $427,000 to 63 artists (including “b-grant” recipients), while the Sondheim has given upwards of $200,000.
The money gets spent in various ways. Dariusz Skoraczewski (Baker 2013) bought a new cello, “a wonderful modern instrument made by a world-class maker, Christopher Dungey;” Matt Porterfield (Sondheim 2011) wrote and developed new projects, including his latest film, I Used To Be Darker; saxophonist Carl Grubbs (Baker 2009) purchased recording gear and collaborated with violist Peter Minkler (Baker 2010); and beatboxer Shodekeh (Baker 2011) cracks that he “threw a big party at the IRS.”
Though he declines to elaborate, Shodekeh hints at how the money often gets used—to meet basic obligations and defray living expenses. In a city lacking a significant collector base, that can be especially important to visual artists like conceptual artist/sculptor Laure Drogoul (Sondheim 2006), who used the money “to create and live without the worry of expenses, for awhile.”
So did Renée Stout. “I lived off some of it and made work with some of it,” says Stout, who notes that she’s self-employed and, unlike many artists, does not teach. “I had a big show in Charleston, and I have no idea how I’d have created that work if I hadn’t won the [Sondheim] grant.”
The money came at a perfect time for Gary Kachadourian (Baker 2011), who left his administrative job at BOPA to get his master’s at UMBC and devote more time to his artwork. Kachadourian, who creates Xeroxed prints and installations from his realistic drawings, was living on a research assistant’s salary he was getting from UMBC, a sum that was “about the equivalent of unemployment,” he says. “I had exactly enough money to pay everyday bills, so the grant was used to supplement everything else. It also allowed me to make larger work, or take on projects that may cost a little more to make.”
Two years later, Kachadourian continues stretching the Baker money, which, along with grants from the New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation and the Maryland State Arts Council, allows him to “spend a lot more time making work and a lot less time making money. For me, the grant was always about getting the most financial freedom I could.”
The awards have come with a downside, because, says Drogoul, there are so many artists in the area that deserve to win, but don’t. “We need more awards,” she says.