Sondheim Exhibition Moves to a New, Temporary Home in 2013 by Cara Ober

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If you haven’t read the fine print in BOPA’s press releases, you may not have noticed, but the Sondheim Prize is moving south, to The Walters Art Museum for this year’s Exhibit of Finalists.

For the past six years, the annual exhibition has been held at The Baltimore Museum of Art, lending an air of credibility, professionalism, and curatorial polish to the show, after the inaugural Exhibit of Finalists in MICA’s Meyerhoff Gallery. This exhibit is a highlight for the local arts community and a significant achievement for the finalists included. This year is the Sondheim’s eighth and the first time finalists’ work will be shown at The Walters.

“The Sondheim Finalist Exhibition gives the Walters a wonderful opportunity to engage with our community in the arena of Contemporary Art— an area that is not part of our permanent collection, and only periodically represented within our exhibition program,” says Dr. Nancy Zinn, Deputy Director, Curatorial, Exhibitions, and Conservation at The Walters.

One advantage of The Walters over the BMA is its geographical location, about four blocks from the main Artscape venue.  However, the museum does not typically exhibit contemporary art, so this may pose a challenge. The Sondheim Finalists will exhibit in the ‘special exhibitions’ space, a U-shaped gallery just off the main lobby, and this area is slightly smaller than the BMA’s galleries, with lower ceilings. Also this space is essentially just one large room with several right hand turns, whereas the Thallheimer is a series of separate galleries, so finalists may have to exhibit fewer pieces or in closer proximity to one another. Like the BMA, the Walters will be free admission, and an awards presentation ceremony will be held in their auditorium.

More than the thirty thousand dollar purse, The BMA’s museum context has become essential to the annual handful of finalists for this highly contested prize. Only one artist takes home the cash, but the whole group of six or seven finalists gains the visibility, credibility, and honor of being chosen as finalists. If this is the case, why is this popular exhibit being relocated?

According to Bill Gilmore, Executive Director of BOPA, “The BMA loves hosting the Sondheim prize and they intend to have us back when the space is available.” Currently, the Thallheimer Gallery, the former location for the prize, is under renovation. When BOPA negotiated with The Walters for 2013, they signed on for only one year, although Gilmore says that there is a chance the Sondheim will be at The Walters in 2014 as well, or, possibly the BMA  if their schedule will allow.

“After this year, we really don’t know where the Sondheim will be. There is no commitment from the Walters to return and no commitment from the BMA that they will be finished – so we could be in another alternative space,” says Gilmore. “We may be homeless again, but its okay –  it forces us to think differently. We are very spoiled and have drawn on two premier institutions to make this work – they both have world class space, security, lighting, pr and marketing to draw on. We could end up at multiple sites next year – nothing is out of consideration at this point.”

Although the Sondheim Prize Exhibit of Finalists is a challenge for a museum, with just four weeks or so to curate, as opposed to years with most exhibits, Gilmore is confident The Sondheim Prize Exhibit of Finalists will continue to be hosted by Baltimore’s local museums. BOPA feels a strong commitment to keep the popular exhibit in the best venue possible.

According to Zinn, “Unlike our usual special exhibition projects that can take anywhere from 2 to 5 years to develop, the Sondheim Finalist Exhibition has a very rapid turn-around time.  From the time the finalists are announced on April 16 to the opening of the exhibition on June 29, our staff will have only 10 weeks to pull everything together.  This will be a big departure for us, and one that will require a great deal of flexibility and innovative thinking.  Fortunately, we have an amazingly creative staff who are eager to take on this challenge and work with the artists.  We are also exceedingly grateful to our colleagues at the BMA for their wisdom and experience, and for their willingness to help us through this process.”

Gilmore echoes Zinn’s enthusiasm for the exhibition. “For artists and communities, the exhibit is a wonderful opportunity for artists to work with professional staff . Often times it is their first opportunity to have that kind of direction from a professional curator, going through the whole process of how it works – from shipping their work to the museum, receiving the work, designing the gallery with a professional curator. Its very special. The curators at the institutions really enjoy doing it – it is an educational process for them, too. That is why it’s a priority for BOPA – the other benefits are the prestige for the artists, which is terrific for the resume – it all gives the artist additional exposure. Those institutions have marketing and advertising machines behind them.”

This year’s Sondheim Exhibit of Finalists will be curated jointly by Kim Domanski of BOPA and Dr. Robert Mintz, The Walters’ Chief Curator.

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