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Starting Thursday, Baltimore artists will be eligible to win $50,000

A view of Paul Rucker's installation as part of the Baker Awards exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
A view of Paul Rucker's installation as part of the Baker Awards exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Mitro Hood / Handout)

Starting Thursday, Baltimore-area visual artists, writers and musicians can compete for a $50,000 prize — among the richest awards offered to an individual artist in the U.S.

That no-strings-attached sum will become the new top grant awarded annually by the Baker Artist Awards and will be named the Mary Sawyers Imboden Prize.

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"We felt that by doubling the top prize to $50,000, we could really have a transformational impact on artists," said Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, which administers the Baker Awards.

Nominations for the juried 2016 competition open Thursday. The contest is open to individual artists across disciplines who live in Baltimore or the five surrounding counties.

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Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake praised the development, writing in an email:

"Baltimore's thriving and growing creative class is adding to our population and helping to revitalize and diversify neighborhoods across our city. I am excited to see that one of our city's artists will have the chance each year to receive such a dramatic award, enabling them to pursue their creative passion, and I am hopeful that it will be yet another reason to encourage artists to choose to make Baltimore their home."

Howe said that the alliance board decided to restructure the award to provide one artist a year with a life-changing opportunity, and to encourage more later-career artists to nominate themselves. Now, the Baker receives between 700 and 1,000 applications a year, with the majority from early to mid-career artists.

Under the previous system, the jury awarded three $25,000 prizes annually, plus three so-called "b grants" of $5,000 apiece. Under the new structure, the jury will award a $50,000 top prize, a $20,000 award to one finalist, and $5,000 awards to three runners-up.

In addition, the 2016 Bakers will create a "finalists" designation of up to 60 artists, who will be announced in February. Though only the five winners will receive awards, the remaining 55 will have bragging rights. The designation also will make it easier for visitors to the website to peruse the work that jurors have judged to be the best in Baltimore. The winners will be announced in late April or early May.

"Fifty-thousand dollars is a year's salary after taxes," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. "It elevates the award into providing a year's worth of financial support for an artist."

Though comparisons between awards programs are difficult, the change means that the Baker will most likely become the largest award to an individual artist living in Maryland.

The Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, which is presented annually to a regional visual artist, is $25,000. The Sophie Kerr Prize, which is given annually to a promising writer, was valued at $62,900 in 2015. That contest, however, is open only to seniors attending Washington College in Chestertown.

In comparison, the winners of the Pulitzer Prize receive $10,000 apiece, while the Hugo Boss Prize, which is administered by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, carries an award of $100,000.

Deana Haggag, director of the Baltimore arts presenting organization The Contemporary, estimated that major arts awards nationally average about $25,000.

"There aren't that many chances to make $50,000 for your work," she said. "I think the creative class in Baltimore has been growing, so the number of opportunities to support these artists also needs to increase."

Haggag has artist friends who have moved to Baltimore recently, attracted by the opportunity to live in an affordable city that's near such other major cultural centers as Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

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"Artists know that Baltimore has a lot to offer," she said. "I actually think there's more art prize money in Baltimore per capita than there is for most other cities. The grant resources we have are pretty phenomenal."

The current show of Baker Award winners and finalists at the Baltimore Museum of Art showcases artworks created by a dozen local artists. This show features the half-dozen 2015 winners, as well as the six who won in 2014, when no show was held because the museum was being renovated.

The 2015 winners include:

•Paul Rucker's installation confronts America's history of racial violence by presenting 22 mannequins wearing embellished Ku Klux Klan capes and hoods. One set of robes is ironically hued in red, white and blue, while several are made from traditional African textiles and designs. Eighteen of the 22 mannequins have jet black hands and feet; while four have chalk-colored limbs.

•Wendel Patrick's photographs document the recent Freddie Gray unrest, including one of an African-American cleric attempting to chat with a grim-faced line of multiracial Baltimore police officers in riot gear. Patrick is the alter ego used by the pianist and composer Kevin Gift. The exhibit includes the musician performing some of his signature compositions that blend jazz, electronica and hip-hop.

•Eric Dyer, an animator and filmmaker, uses drone technology to film some of his modernist sculptures from the sky. His installation also explores the intersection of art and medicine by envisioning the use of minute robots to cure disease.

♣The 2015 b-grant winners were author Timmy Reed, who has selections of his prose on display in which he attempts to explain such familiar terms such as "the brain" and "the museum" to an unidentified inquisitor; Dominique Zeltzman, who contributes surveillance videos over which she has superimposed her own audio commentary; and Renee Rendine's transparent, insect-like sculptures reminiscent of bubble wrap.

If you go

The show of the 2014 and 2015 winners of the Baker Artist Awards runs through Nov. 15 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, at North Charles and 31st Streets. Free. For details, call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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