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On the 2009 Sondheim Prize (2 of 2)

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Kriston Capps: I need to post a disclaimer because it might come up in this leg of the conversation: Molly Springfield is a friend of mine.

If I’m a Sondheim Prize finalist in 2010, I’m thinking that I need to put a Baltimore Zip code on my resume and highlight my teaching experience and spend a few hundred hours volunteering in the city from the semifinalist round forward. As you say, the winners of the Sondheim Prize since its inception could all point to their civic work in Baltimore—though none of the winners, except for the Baltimore Development Cooperative, would point to their civic work as their submission for consideration.

That’s a critical point that distinguishes the BDC from past winners. There are, after all, other commonalities between past winners that are clearly not cause for concern. All the winners are also MICA alumni, for example, yet I don’t think—at the very least I haven’t heard anyone express it seriously—that only an artist with a degree from MICA stands to take home gold.

Putting aside the fact that the BDC claims their civic interaction as art work in a way that past winners like Geoff Grace do not, the concern about artists’ civic qualification is one I shared after the award ceremony. It’s hard not to, particularly as a Washington resident. Coming into the awards ceremony, with Baltimore’s mayor and a Baltimore newscaster introducing the prize to a primarily Baltimore-based audience, artists hailing from D.C. or Virginia must feel like they’re playing an away game. Add to that this issue that the past winners are conspicuously important to the Baltimore community and you have the makings of what seems to be a fix—maybe not deliberate but there, nevertheless.

So when I reported my story about the Sondheim, I spoke to Gary Kachadourian at length about this issue. I asked, specifically, what instructions or other guidelines the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts gives to the jury. He was unequivocal about it: none. No fix for social justice or community activism or what have you. He said that he asks jurors to consider the work. He noted that the BDC didn’t make it through the first round for the 2008 prize, to give an example of how mercurial the jurying process can potentially be. So social activism, or the benefit to Baltimore, is not being considered as a qualification for this prize—Kachadourian was very clear on this point.

However, there is an interview segment to the award. I think you could argue that the interview benefits artists whose practice is conceptual, off site, untethered to an object, and so on. Artists like Leslie Furlong, Jessie Lehson, Molly Springfield and the others in the finalists’ circle are given an opportunity to clarify the work that they’ve put up for consideration. On the other hand, the BDC has an opportunity to expand upon the work they put up: They’re able to tell the jurors that the work is much more than what’s on display there at the BMA. It’s maybe a structural advantage for artists who engage in a more conceptual practice—maybe.

Cara: Well, we could argue a lot of things, in terms of potential strategies and also conspiracy theories. There is ample ambiguity in the process, and you can’t help but to see patterns. I can see your argument that DC-based artists are seen less favorably in this process, which is an idea I hadn’t bother to consider. When the Trawick Prize is given, there’s no interview process, and there seems to be no bias in terms of choosing Baltimore or DC artists for the top prize.

That said, I do not believe that community activism is a necessary component in an artist’s resume in order to win the Sondheim Prize in Baltimore. Most, if not all, artists volunteer their time, donate their work, and give back to the larger communities. However, I think that AFTER the jurors choose their favorites, the interview process can’t help but to give an advantage to the artists whose projects are most expansive and inclusive.

Every year the jurors are different, which seems to guarantee objectivity and fairness, a fresh start for each new competition. However, upon closer inspection, the national and international art world is small. Many of these jurors have studied under the same teachers, have exhibited in the same museums, and read the same theorists and critics. Despite the differences in jurors from year to year, there is a surprising degree of sameness in their choices. The Sondheim has only existed for four years, yet we see the many of the same finalists year after year. In a pool of several hundred artists, this seems odd. If we look at the CV’s of Karen Yasinsky, Molly Springfield, Geoff Grace, Baby Martinez, and the BDC (as Camp Baltimore), what similarities emerge? Are there certain experiences – residencies or exhibitions, not just the work – which mark these candidates, year after year, as heavyweights? And if this is the case, how can we expect jurors to choose ‘fairly’? Building on this, is it wrong to expect a degree of fairness and impartiality from a juror?

Like any other competitive sport, certain athletes and teams are always in the playoffs. Not to say that they always win – that’s always a surprise, but the finalists mostly are not. The interview process, conducted the day the awards are given out, seems to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

If the exhibit is the proof, why is an interview necessary? The interview process may actually be counter-productive, in terms of choosing the strongest body of work as the winner. There’s no interview in choosing the semi-finalists, so why should there be one for the winner? Why can’t the works speak for themselves? The BDC had three individuals to answer questions, as opposed to just one of each of the individual artists. Doesn’t that give them an advantage?

Kriston: Last week, someone sent me a link to a blog post by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson that expresses something that could be material, given the interview process. She writes, “The intent of the BDC, on paper, seems admirable enough. Get through the chewy curatorial jargon and hyper-politicized prose explaining Participation Park and you learn that their stated intent is to gather the community around a vacant plot of land in order to foster democratic public space and a dialogue about development.”

Now, Dickinson brings up a lot of concerns about the work that are valid—I recommend reading them and would echo a lot of those points. They are concerns that ought to have come up to a jury, but even she expresses caution about voicing them out loud because she doesn’t know the work very well. But she’s able to speak in an informed way about some issues surrounding Participation Park—issues about Baltimore’s history and politics that a jury just is not going to know.

I’m a fan of Bravo’s Top Chef. I watch at home with friends and we bitch and moan about an episode’s winner when it seems like the better contestant was snubbed. But at the end of the day, this is sort of absurd: As an armchair food critic, I can’t taste the food, so how can I judge?

Would the Sondheim Prize lose something if the work up for consideration were restricted to the objects on display—the stuff that jurors can taste firsthand? Or would that eliminate performance art, activism, and other conceptual, post-object practices from consideration altogether?

Cara: I don’t think the prize would lose anything if the work on display is the sole factor in picking the winner. I think the Sondheim Prize would actually become more equitable and less frustrating for everyone who does not get to participate in the final interview process. What is the point of having the exhibition if a half hour conversation can tip the scales? Each artist has a written statement on the wall in the museum and submits other written materials. This should be adequate. The more I think about it, the interview process seems skewed and unnecessary, and downright disadvantageous to the artists who aren’t smooth talkers, magnetic personalities, or pious souls.

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