Annual prize would boost already-thriving scene

CRITIC'S CORNER

Critic's Corner//Art

March 15, 2006|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

Last week's announcement that the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts will kick off Artscape's 25th anniversary this year by awarding a $25,000 prize to a Baltimore-area artist is exciting news indeed.

Now the question is: What effect will such a prize have on this city's vibrant arts scene?

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, named for one of Baltimore's most prominent civic leaders and his wife, is comparable to awards offered by organizations in Philadelphia and Washington.

In Philadelphia, the Pew Charitable Trusts make annual grants of $50,000 to artists. In Washington, the annual Trawick Prize offers up to $10,000 to artists from the region.

For now, the Sondheim Prize is a one-time grant that will be awarded July 14, the weekend before Artscape begins. But the office of promotion wants to establish a fund that will allow it to present the prize annually.

That would be a good thing, because the most important effects of a prize such as the Sondheim award can only be felt over time.

The Philadelphia prizes, for example, have encouraged hundreds of artists to remain in the area simply to remain eligible for the competition. Similarly, the prizes in Washington have added luster to that politically obsessed city as an emerging center for contemporary art. In both cases, prizes have helped nurture a critical mass of artists, galleries and arts-related activities in the area.

If the Sondheim prize becomes an annual event, it will have a similar effect here. Yes, it will contribute, albeit indirectly, to the city's redevelopment efforts by strengthening the bonds of community among the creative class. It'll encourage the area's best artists to stick around, perhaps participate in Artscape more often, and raise the bar for everything related to it.

Over the long term, the quality of locally produced work will tend to rise, which in turn will benefit all the exhibition venues in town, not just during Artscape but throughout the year.

Of course, Baltimore artists already are producing art of astonishing ingenuity and conceptual sophistication - thanks in large part to the presence here of the Maryland Institute College of Art, with its distinguished faculty and talented, diverse student body.

We've already got a good thing going. But a high-profile incentive such as an annual Sondheim award would truly be the icing on the cake.

Boone exhibit

Marc Boone's luminous, oil-and-wax landscape paintings, on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery, recall the passionate abstract visions of early American modernists like Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley.

Boone has spent time in the American West as well as in the Baltimore region, and the light in his pictures reflects those experiences. There's a sense of vast expanses stretching to the horizon and voluminous, cloud-filled skies.

The paintings, built up of innumerable layers of color, have a formal simplicity that belies their technical bravura and finesse. These are works one can look at again and again and always find new things that are both beautiful and true.

The show runs through March 25. The gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080.

Inmate art

The Baltimore Opera Company's spectacular production of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, based on the real-life story of a Catholic nun who befriended a convicted murderer on death row, throws a spotlight on the contentious issue of capital punishment that is both harrowing and deeply moving.

In conjunction with the BOC, the Prisons Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for prisoners' access to art-making programs and materials, has mounted an exhibition of inmate-created artworks that will be displayed at the Lyric Opera House during the production's final three performances tonight, Friday and Sunday.

Alas, the artworks on view are almost uniformly undistinguished - not surprising, perhaps, given the severe educational and psychological deficits among inmate populations that typically are major factors leading to incarceration.

What is most troubling, however, is the indisputable evidence of talent, albeit undeveloped, among many of these artist-inmates, several of whom clearly are skilled draftsmen. Yet despite their manual dexterity, their artworks by and large are emotionally and spiritually vacuous.

Ultimately, these artworks point up what is also a major theme of the opera, namely the tremendous waste of human potential that results from criminal behavior, both for the perpetrators of crime and their victims.

Composer Heggie has created music of profound beauty out of this tragedy, but it remains a tragedy nonetheless.

The Lyric Opera House is at 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Call 410-727-6000.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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