Baltimore's arts community is starting to behave like an arts community, and the Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize has played no small role in that evolution. Since its inaugural 2006 year, the Sondheim laurel has awarded a Baltimore region artist--finalists have come from Washington, D.C. and greater Maryland--$25,000 for career enrichment. And over those five years, the euphoria of such a prestigious regional award has gradually morphed into that inevitable fact of a healthy arts community: public complaining. About the same artists appearing as finalists in consecutive years. About the winners always coming from Baltimore. About the winner always having some kind of community involvement. Last year's winner, the Baltimore Development Co-operative, generated a wealth of online criticism all by itself, from the well-considered to the reactionary. Now that a nice chunk of change and national attention is at stake, people are starting to bitch--and bitch and bitch and bitch and bitch and bitch.
Good. For the Sondheim to matter over time it needs exactly that sort of discussion about its recipients' merits. Sure, sometimes this complaining is hollow and bitter, but more often than not it's thinking about art and artists' roles in a community, the social purpose of art (if it has one), what it means to be a Baltimore artist, and more. That there is no single correct answer to any of these questions doesn't mitigate the need to debate them in a public forum. So while the award is decided upon by outside jurors--this year, independent New York curator Robert Nickas, Postmasters Gallery owner/director Magdalena Sawon, and director of education and associate curator of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago Hamza Walker--Baltimore's arts community is going to decide what it means. And the best way to ensure that the Sondheim remains an award worth fighting over is to remind its recipients that it isn't just about what you've already done, but how and what you continue to create.
One of the below artists joins Laure Drogoul, Tony Shore, Geoff Grace, and the Baltimore Development Co-operative in that ongoing debate when the 2010 Sondheim Prize winner is announce July 10 at the Baltimore Museum of Art at 7 p.m.