The Sondheim Finalists Exhibition of 2022 is scaled back compared to previous years, with three finalists instead of the usual five to seven. It’s a slightly less broad sampling of artists based in the Baltimore region—and thus fewer artists are given the opportunity to compete for a major prize and exhibit in a local museum. For the viewer, at least, it makes for a tighter show from which we can draw more connections and distinctions among the works on display. This is not what we usually expect from this annual event (nor is it the point), but it offers a compelling temperature check on a few subjects of artistic concern.
The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which operates the award, raised the stakes for its 17th-annual exhibition. In previous years, the top prize was $25,000 for one finalist, with the rest receiving smaller honorary amounts. According to BOPA director Donna Drew Sawyer, more than 300 artists applied, and the jurors—Catherine Morris, Jean Shin, and Kambui Olujimi—selected Maren Henson, Megan Koeppel, and James Williams II as finalists who are competing for a top prize of $30,000. The second place award is a fully funded residency in Italy, and the third-place prize is a residency in the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, which BOPA also runs. The winner will be announced on Thursday, July 28 in a ceremony followed by a reception from 6-8 p.m. at the Walters.
Although this year’s Sondheim finalists show is significantly smaller than previous ones and takes up only half of the first-floor gallery at the Walters Art Museum, it feels anything but sparse. Each artist’s display is contained and yet draws concise outlines of their craft and concepts.
There’s an undercurrent of materialism that runs through this show, much of the art being rooted in, or suggesting implications of, real-world issues of today. Within the work of Henson, Koeppel, and Williams, respectively, there are excavations of government conspiracies; meditations upon communal knowledge and creative repurposing; and confrontations with the process of racialization, specifically how Blackness is constructed. Working in installation, video, textiles, painting, and sculpture, the artists all place emphasis on material in the literal sense as well: the component parts are integral to the meaning of the work.