Why Prizes Matter

A few days ago, I couldn't remember whether or not I had applied for this year's Sondheim Prize (I shot them an email and found out that I had). I consider applying every year, but most of the time I don't. That's dumb! Everyone should apply! The Sondheim Prize, a $25,000 award given to one Baltimore-area artist every year, is like the Super Bowl of art in Baltimore (I think . . . I don't actually know much about baseball).

I, like a lot of people I know, don't give much thought to applying because I don't think its likely I will be selected as a finalist or even semifinalist. That kind of thinking is problematic because it narrows the scope of the artwork that three out-of-town jurors get to see coming out of Baltimore. Everyone describes the art scene here as "close-knit" or "small" and that simply is untrue. Many people who attend and show in commercial galleries or non-profit institutions often don't even know about weird pop-up spaces in Highlandtown back streets and vice versa. A few weeks ago, I attended the Alloverstreet gallery crawl in Station North on Friday night and School 33's 35th anniversary exhibit on Saturday. At two huuuuuuge, crowded shows there was absolutely no crossover in terms of exhibiting artists or attendees. The Sondheim finalist and semifinalist exhibitions give art producers and audiences a chance to see disparate practices informed by disparate scenes cross-pollinate. For a multitude of reasons, certain bubbles just don't mix or don't seem accessible to each other. But it's very likely that someone who hasn't even heard of the Copycat Building will attend a well-publicized show at a major museum.

I know, the online application process makes the Obamacare website seem like the hallmark of user friendliness. But it's important to learn how to do those things. All of our practices—curation, performance, sculpture, painting, whatever—are inevitably experienced most often as digital images accompanied by text. Documentation has become the Esperanto of cultural production. For better or worse, it's how all of the weird things we do in the name of art are made legible and comparable to one another.

Lastly, it might seem hard to justify spending $30 on an entrance fee for a prize you probably won't win, but we spend money on stupid stuff all the time. Just today, my boyfriend bought two Powerball tickets for $3 each. According to Ronald L. Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association, the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are one in 175,223,510. Assuming that every single person who filled out the census in Baltimore City was also an artist and also applied for the Sondheim Prize, your odds of winning would be one in 622,104. It stands to reason that paying $30 for a far-better-than-one-in-622,104 chance of winning $25,000 dollars is just better financial sense than investing $3 for a one-in-175,223,510 chance of winning like, a bazillion dollars, right?  

Sondheim Artscape Prize

Marley Dawson
Shannon Collis
Stewart Watson
Kyle Bauer
Kyle Tata
Neil Feather
Lauren Francis Adams
Why Prizes Matter

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