VIRTUAL SHOWCASE

The Baltimore Sun

Winners of the prestigious Baker Artist Awards program in Baltimore won't be announced until Wednesday night, but mosaic artist Rick Shelley figures he's already benefited from the competition.

After he posted his entry on the Baker awards Web site in January, Shelley says, a couple commissioned him to design a mosaic tile floor insert - bearing the image of a purple octopus - for a home they're building in Pennsylvania.

Shelley said entering the contest forced him to put slides of his work into a digital format that anyone can view.

"I didn't have a Web site, so it really gave me an opportunity to have a presence online," he said. "It was a way of organizing my artistic life, digitally."

Shelley is one of many local artists who say they've profited from the Internet savvy of the Baker awards program, whether they win money or not.

Printmaker Kathy Beachler said she has received more visits to her Web site - illegibleink.com - and has received three new commissions. Installation artist Soledad Salame was contacted by a television producer who expressed interest in featuring her work in a pilot that is being filmed in Baltimore. Multimedia artist Loring Cornish said prospective patrons came to his gallery after seeing his entry.

"It was a great experience, and I'm glad I was a part of it," Cornish said. "It makes me feel good that opportunities such as this exist right here in Baltimore."

Established last year by the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund and administered by the nonprofit Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, the awards program was created to honor artists who live and work in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, and to encourage more artists to move to the area.

Under the program, artists can be from any discipline or more than one, including music, theater, video, filmmaking, writing, painting, sculpture, photography, textiles, jewelry, animation and architecture.

Ten artists will receive a total of $82,000 in prize money. Three artists selected through a privately juried process will get prizes of $25,000 each, named for philanthropist Mary Sawyers Baker. Another seven artists selected by public voting will each receive "Baltimore's Choice" prizes of $1,000. All winners also will get a "Silver B" statuette, designed by Baltimore jeweler Betty Cooke. The scope of the program and the amount of money available make the initiative one of the largest and broadest art awards programs in Central Maryland.

Winners will be announced Wednesday on MPT ArtWorks, which airs at 7:30 p.m. on Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67). Announcements also will be posted on several Web sites, including bakerartistawards.org and baltimoresun.com. The Baltimore Museum of Art is planning an exhibit of the winners' work from April 29 to June 28.

Besides the money offered, one of the most distinctive features of the awards program is that it is Internet-based. Artists nominated themselves by uploading their portfolios and biographies on the Baker Web site. Viewers or listeners were encouraged to vote for the artists they want to win the Baltimore's Choice prizes.

The Baker Web site, created by Fastspot Interactive Design Agency of Baltimore, combines social-networking features with a gallery format. The site even has a "curated exhibition" section in which prominent figures in the local arts community selected works for online "gallery presentations."

"We've been told that this is like Facebook for artists, and that's what we want it to become," said Tracey Halvorsen, a principal and creative director at Fastspot. "It's a community that artists have right now that Baker opened the doors to. And it's addictive. You can spend a lot of time on it. It's a testament to the creativity and the quality of artists in Baltimore."

According to Halvorsen and others:

* 656 artists nominated themselves and uploaded examples of their work and biographical information. Nominees ranged from people in their 20s to people in their 80s.

* 10,372 people visited the site, created accounts and registered to vote. Visitors came from all 50 states and more than 70 countries and territories.

* 8,531 votes were cast, including multiple votes from people who found ways to "unlock" extra votes by browsing and becoming more active in the site.

That response surpassed the expectations of the program's organizers for the first year of the program.

"The overwhelming response indicates that Baltimore is a thriving cultural center that both inspires artists and engages the community," said Nancy Haragan, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. "The Baker Artist Awards are intended to showcase Baltimore artists and art, and it has certainly done that."

Mary Sawyers Baker established the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund in 1964 to honor her husband, a founding partner in the old Baker Watts investment banking firm. In 2007, the fund narrowed its philanthropic mission to focus on arts and culture.

While the process gave local artists a chance to compete for large monetary awards, it also created a virtual museum that allows anyone to view the entries and see the wealth of artistic talent in the region.

Halvorsen said Fastspot designed a Web site several years ago for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York to use for its People's Design Award program, which gives viewers a chance to vote for designs they deem prize-worthy.

"We knew we wanted to make the nominating process for this particular foundation program much more transparent and community-focused, but we had no idea how the artists and community would react," she wrote on a blog on the Fastspot Web site.

"Obviously, we had little reason for concern. It is clear from the numbers, this type of awards program and online nomination process was something the arts community had long been hoping for, not to mention the success we saw from integrating a 'People's Choice' into the mix."

One difference between the Cooper Hewitt site and the Baker site is that the Baker site isn't limited to visual artists. Baltimore's "virtual museum" can be used in a variety of ways. It gave the competition's judges enough information to pick winners. But it also can be used by local gallery owners looking for emerging artists to represent, or new ways to promote artists with whom they already work. Art enthusiasts can scour the site for artists from whom they'd like to buy work. Artists can see who else in the area is doing the sort of work they're doing. And they can look for artists in other disciplines with whom they might like to collaborate.

Amy Raehse, executive director of Goya Contemporary gallery in Baltimore, said Goya submitted nominations for artists it represents as a way of giving them exposure. Any artist with a nomination for the Baker awards now automatically comes up on a Google search of his or her name.

"The Baker site is an amazing resource," she said. "The program's strength is that it celebrates all disciplines of creativity, ... which not only reinforces the Bakers' devotion to the arts but also points to the rich cultural energy we maintain and foster here in Baltimore. The site itself is a celebration of culture, which mirrors the spirit of the Bakers themselves."

CHECKING OUT THE ART

* While most visitors to bakerartistawards.org are from the U.S., there have been 530 visitors from Canada, 447 from the United Kingdom, 232 from France, 182 from Germany, 133 from Australia, 132 from Italy, 127 from Spain and 88 from the Netherlands.

* Other viewers include: National Gallery of Art, 86 visits; Museum of Modern Art, 42 minutes spent surfing the site; Smithsonian Institution, 56 visits; Baltimore Museum of Art, 50 visits; and Stanford University, 31 visits.

* Other notable visitors include the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Corcoran Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center and the Fuller Craft Museum.

Source: Fastspot

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