A Response to ‘Symptomatic Ageism and the Sondheim Prize’ by Nicole Buckingham Kern

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I must say this first. I love this city, and the artists and curators in it. They are a warm, supportive group, where receptions are attended not just because they themselves are showing, but often because friends and colleagues are included. Everyone supports one another’s successes. This is difficult to do – as most of us are balancing jobs, families and other responsibilities along with our art making, and the fact that the artists here do so in spite of those challenges is a great strength of Baltimore’s arts community. Any observations I make are not a reflection on the artists or the curators. Having the benefit of being both artist and curator, there are some trends that I have taken note of, and some conversations that I think it would benefit Baltimore to have.

Over the past four years, I have spent a lot of time sifting through Sondheim applications with my curatorial students at the Community College of Baltimore County. Although it is an exhausting enterprise (for the 2013 application there were 362 applicants, with a max of 5 images each), I enjoy the process for several reasons. As gallery coordinator, it inspires new curatorial projects. Even though my students curate the Artscape exhibit for the gallery, I keep in mind those artists whose work I find interesting for future exhibitions. As an artist, it is a great opportunity to see what other Baltimore artists are doing. Throughout the year I try to attend opening receptions, but often there are schedule conflicts with my own gallery calendar or teaching schedule. This application process helps me keep track of who’s out there making work, and puts my own work in the context of the community. As a teacher, I enjoy watching my students examine the work, and see what connections they make, what concepts they find in these relationships, and the evolution of their exhibition proposals.

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When developing an Artscape exhibition proposal, I encourage my students to supplement the artistic pool by looking at additional sources, like MAP’s Visual Artist Registry, the Baker Artist Awards, and WPA/Corcoran database. It is required that at least 50% of their artists be from the Sondheim Applicants, a stipulation to ensure that we can apply to BOPA to be considered a part of the Showcase Gallery Network. Within these parameters, the aesthetic of the exhibitions tend to be defined by the Sondheim artists, and the artists selected from the additional sources are chosen to complement those artists. Although this helps with finding additional artists to round out the exhibition, it does little to influence the show’s concept or theme.

Over the last few years I have seen a lot of the same names, with a few new additions here and there. I have also noted absences, as those who have applied before are no longer among the applicants. The variety in concept, style, and method of artistic expression has seemed to slowly decrease over time, until there now appears to be a “type” of Sondheim applicant, a homogeneity that I find to be disturbing.

The end result is a series of exhibitions that are only slightly different than the previous year, the contrasts defined by the curators’ approach to the work, not on the work itself.

I have been left wondering how and why this is occurring, and if I am the only one noticing a pattern? If the Sondheim is the pinnacle exhibit of the year for the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland, and there is a certain aesthetic that rules the selection, then are we not disenfranchising the portion of the artistic community that does not fall into that “type”? It certainly feels that way.

It seems to be a vicious cycle. Curators can only work with the materials that they are given (in this case, artist applications), and the curator’s goal is to make a solid exhibition to display interesting work, whether the focus is conceptual or formal. A curator can only do so if there is enough artwork that shows together cohesively. But curators are not impartial; in essence, the nature of a curator is to choose, and in choosing there is a certain level of subjectivity. Curators have inclinations towards particular types of work and a savvy artist responds to the types of selections that curators are making. If an artist’s particular style or concept is not the kind typically chosen by a curator, then why would the artist bother to apply? It is a waste of their time, and resources, both of which are limited.

The type of work selected for both finalists and semifinalists is a direct reflection of the predisposition of the curators towards specific media and modes of expression, based on their specialties and interests – as is to be expected. All three of the 2013 Sondheim Jurors have long resumes of impressive credentials. There is no dispute as to their validity as judges.

Based on their juror profiles, it should not be surprising that four photo-documentarians and two installation artists were chosen as Sondheim Finalists. Or that the breakdown of media for the semi-finalists is 34% installation works, 20% video/animation, 16% photography and photo documentary, 10% non-objective/abstract painting, 8% performance, 6% paper based/collage media and 2% sculpture? All the work selected for the Sondheim exhibitions are excellent examples of works that fall within Busta, Schlenzka and Semmes’ areas of concentration.

However, the issue does not lie in what was chosen this year in particular, but the fact that year after year, curators with similar specialties and focuses to those of the 2013 curators have been selected. Curators with similar interests produce exhibitions of similar work, and so an ArtScape/Sondheim “type” of artwork has emerged.

Cara questions whether there is a type of age-ism inherent in the Sondheim selection. I did take the time to look through Finalist and Semi-Finalist CVs, resumes and websites to get a gauge on the ages of the artists. The average age is 37. At first I found this surprising. It is young enough to fall below the “mature” artist category, which fits in with Cara’s initial reaction, but it is old enough to where these artists are not recent graduates of MICA’s BFA program. Maybe the MFA program, but not the BFA.

Is this due to the type of work being created by this age group? Or is it due to the fact that they have been working long enough to develop a consistent body of work, but are still new and hungry enough for the exposure attaining the Sondheim’s golden apple will garner them?

I know I am. Although I am a part of the young(er) thirty-something artist population of Baltimore, I am also a part of an aesthetic minority. Contemporary figurative realism in painting and drawing does not really fall into the typical ArtScape/Sondheim aesthetic. To be honest, whenever I have applied for the Sondheim the goal has been to get in the database of artists that the galleries choose from for the Gallery Network. Six years, six application fees and six Artscapes later, and not a single nibble at having my work included in an ArtScape related show has left me giving up on Baltimore for the ArtScape 2013 season and looking elsewhere to exhibit. Has the Sondheim “type” influenced the work chosen by the curators of the satellite exhibitions?

Out of curiosity, I took another look through the Sondheim applicants, and for good measure, the Baker nominations. Out of the 362 Sondheim 2013 applicants, I found 24 artists (6%) that work in a manner of contemporary figurative realism. From the 600 Baker nominations in the visual arts I found 28 (4%). Most of the artists in this category fall around the same median age as that of the Sondheim Finalists and Semi-Finalists. So the hypothesis of a symptomatic ageism doesn’t really apply to this particular facet of the issue.

I look at the Baltimore Art community this way. It has been growing, and as it grows, it has done what it needs to promote that growth- which is maintaining a narrow focus by “fawning” over what we perceive to be the newest thing.

While this quest to be the avant-garde of the avant-garde has opened our eyes to many new possibilities of expression, it has also created what I have heard termed a “permissive arts environment” that has blinded us to those very “equally valid and long-term conversations that might actually teach us something about sustainability.” That permissiveness, however, has come to apply only to the work that falls within that narrow area of focus. We have reached a point where some of the hallmarks of art have come to be disregarded by the majority. Can work be interesting and relevant if it depicts a rendered person, place or thing? I believe so, yes, but have attended critiques where my peers have deemed the work “too beautiful” to be taken seriously. Why does representational beauty have to negate the conceptual value of a work of art?

We have reached the stage where we need not only to grow, but also to thrive. And a healthy, thriving, art environment is one that promotes diversity of concept, media, and aesthetic.

Another, more practical point of consideration in regards to the disparity in age of Sondheim applicants is technology. The Sondheim application process has begun to rely on digital processes of submission. Over time applying for the Sondheim has gone from burning a disk and submitting a CD of images along with a printed application to submitting everything online. We are in an era that is increasingly technology oriented. Digital methods of application have their strengths and weaknesses. It streamlines the process, makes data collection easier for the receiving gallery or institution and gives the artist more time to make deadlines. More mature artists who do not have to keep up with technology because of their jobs, or who do not have a natural technological inclination, might find it onerous to apply through digital means, or experience more problems with the process. Also, not everyone has Internet access.

So… is the focus of the Sondheim semifinalist show due to either an overt, or unconscious, act of ageism on the part of the selection board? No, although I think the ageist tendency is a symptom of a few larger challenges.

One is the conversion of the application process from paper to digital.

The second is the narrow aesthetic curatorial focus of the Sondheim selection process.

And the third is the decrease in the variety of artists applying for the Sondheim.

How do these challenges bode for the future health of the Arts in Baltimore and the sustainability of our Arts Community?

If they are not addressed, they do not bode well. The current situation fosters a sense of elitism that is out of character with the Baltimore I know. I believe these are issues that can be addressed.

* The applications process can be made more readily accessible, through workshops or paper/mail in applications for those who are not comfortable with using technology or who do not have the means to do so.

* The aesthetic focus of the Sondheim can be widened. Curators of different aesthetic leanings can be chosen from year to year, or different goals can be set for each exhibition. Essentially, find a way to balance the exhibitions conceptually and formally, through use of media and varieties of expression.

* But to do this, the third challenge needs to be addressed. The curators can only select from the pool they are given, and I know there are more than 362 artists living and creating in the state of Maryland and surrounding region. Artists need to apply, to not be discouraged because their work is not chosen for the Sondheim Finalist or Semi-Finalist, or the Gallery Showcase Network. Just because something isn’t selected one year, doesn’t mean it won’t be selected the next.

I admit that I am part of the third problem. I have become discouraged, and stopped applying. I intend to rectify that, and I hope others do as well. Because there are curators out there who do look for a variety of work, and artists are doing Baltimore’s curators a disservice by not throwing their names in the hat. I had a student this year who had an excellent concept for a narrative figurative exhibition based off of two artists he saw in the applicant pool… unfortunately, two artists were not enough to fill the gallery space, and he had to pursue another exhibition concept.

I realize that there may be other factors that play into the current climate surrounding ArtScape and the Sondheim, and can only give my views based on my experience. But I hope it gives some food for thought, and maybe a conversation or two, on how to nurture our Arts community.

Author Nicole Buckingham Kern is a Baltimore-based artist and the Gallery Coordinator at Community College of Baltimore County. All images are from Physiognamy, the 2013 Artscape Satellite Exhibit at CCBC.

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