First of all, I need to say that I love the Baker Artist Awards. They are a valuable, generous resource for the artists of Baltimore and an excellent opportunity to build community and cohesion in the Baltimore art scene. The website is beautifully designed and totally free to use; it serves as a beacon of visibility for Baltimore artists across the world. The Baker awards are monetarily significant, both the large and the small, and the museum show for all winners is a treat for artists and the general public.
Now you know what’s coming next. Constructive criticism is intended to be helpful, but is criticism nonetheless. Take a look at the past images of award winners below.
Not pictured: 2009 Winners John Ruppert, Carl Grubbs, and Hadieh Shafie
While I applaud the diversity of the media represented – visual art, music, literature, performance, new media, hybrid forms – and the Baker Award’s high standards of excellence, I have to ask: Aren’t there more women and persons of color in Baltimore who deserve this award?
I can testify that I know a majority of the past Baker winners personally and all are excellent candidates for the award. I have taught with them, written about them, worked on projects together and see them out socially. Even those I don’t know personally, I have followed their careers for years and I have no complaints about their qualifications in winning this award. They’re all great.
However, there have been just 4 out of 21 winners who are women and six who are persons of color. From my extensive research of the Baltimore art community conducted over the past decade, I believe that this is not enough. I see ambitious and excellent projects by female and minority artists in Baltimore on a regular basis. I do not believe that this award is accurately representing the talent and accomplishments of our art community as a whole.
In a day and age where women account for just 5% of the works presented in contemporary galleries of majors museums, yet represent over 50% of artists and 65% of the population of art schools, Baltimore needs to do better in recognizing their achievements. I am not advocating tokenism at the Baker Artist Awards. I am not advocating quotas. And I am certainly not complaining about the past winners. What I am advocating is a deliberate, accurate reflection of the best our city has to offer in the arts. There should be more women and people of color in the winner’s circle.
During three years of their existence (2012, 2014, 2015), the Baker Artist Awards gave their top honors exclusively to men. In two of these all-male years, all three winners were white (and there was some grumbling about this), but no public conversation around it. No one seemed to notice.
Imagine what would happen if the Baker Awards had featured three women for the top prize this year? And if they featured three women next year, too? What would the headlines say? My guess is something like “Baker Awards Top Honors Go To Three Female Artists. Again.” Or even, “Do the Baker Artist Awards Favor Female Artists?” Why is it newsworthy when women, exclusively women, win top awards, but not when males do?? We expect men to win, and when they do, it reinforces our expectations. In contrast, when women win a majority of art awards, especially exclusively, people take notice because it is so unexpected. Even if you don’t think that giving all three awards to women would somehow marginalize the awards, and I don’t, this double standard should make all of us think twice.
At the Baker Awards where the jurors are secret and they have the freedom to choose the best of the best according to their own private criteria, I would like to strongly advocate for three female winners for the next three years to make up for past years and to properly represent the arts here in Baltimore. At that point, 13 out of 27 winners would be female, which is around 50%, where it should be. If at least two thirds of these female winners were also persons of color, at 12 that would also be a lot closer to representing the actual Baltimore we inhabit.
Again, I am not complaining about the past choices the Baker Artist Awards have made. These artists are all terrific and their success is well deserved. However, when we don’t make a concerted effort to institute equality between sexes and races in the art world, we unfortunately reinforce the entrenched inequality of the past.
Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt. You can see her Baker Artist Award Page here.