Is the $100,000 Ordway Prize Too Much?

November 18, 2009 · Print This Article

I’d never heard of the Ordway Prize until a few weeks ago, when two highly respected Chicago-based arts professionals (artist Tania Bruguera, who also lives in Havana, Cuba, and Hamza Walker, curator at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago) were included on this year’s list of finalists. The Ordway Prize is a relatively new award, established in 2005 as a joint effort by Creative Link for the Arts and the New Museum. The selection process for the Ordway Prize is outlined on the New Museum’s website as follows (excerpt):

The prize acknowledges the contributions of a Curator/Arts Writer and an Artist whose work has had significant impact on the field of contemporary art, but who has yet to receive broad public recognition. Finalists for the Ordway Prize are midcareer talents between the ages of forty and sixty-five, with a developed body of work extending over a minimum of fifteen years.

Now, it’s always great to see behind-the-scenes culture professionals get recognized for their outstanding work. This goes double for curators, who get paid relatively little and yet play such a critical role in bringing art to the public.  So if a little cash gets thrown at said curators while recognizing their contributions to the field, that’s nice too. I’m not of the view that culture workers need to be poor to have integrity. That said, however, I think that $100,000  is an inordinate amount of money given the fact that a) the prize is unrestricted and b) this year’s nominees, as well as past Ordway Prize winners, are institutionally-affiliated curators as opposed to those working independently and earning income on a project-by-project basis.

Almost every other aspect of the Ordway Prize sits just fine with me. I support the effort to recognize midcareer professionals who have 15 + year track records and who have repeatedly shown themselves to be innovators in their field. Past Ordway Prize winners in the curator/art writer category include Ralph Rugoff, director of the Heyward Gallery in London, and James Elaine, curator of Hammer Projects at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. I’ve worked with both of them and have the utmost admiration and respect for each. As I see it, the issue isn’t about merit, it’s about money, specifically how much unrestricted money it’s appropriate to award to arts professionals who are already receiving a salary and deriving research and exhibition budgets directly from their own institutions.

One hundred grand is a lot of cash. Why so much? If the prize is meant as a pat on the back, 25 or even 50 grand really ought to do it.  But a $100,000 pat on the back? That seems excessive, and more like an attention grab on the part of Creative Link that gives one curator queen for a day status while the rest go about their business as usual. Perhaps there’s an underlying assumption that part of the prize money will enable the curator/arts writer to pursue a “dream project.” However, if that project eventually takes the form of an exhibition, it’s appropriate that the curator’s institution generate the budget and foot the bill, travel and research included.

I’m all for professional plaudits and even for reasonable monetary infusions that provide creative professionals with the physical and yes, emotional resources to think big(ger). But I don’t think culture professionals need to be quite so richly rewarded for doing what is, after all, their job, and I’m pretty sure that no single curator/art writer warrants $100,000 worth of peer affirmation. Not when it’s unrestricted, anyway.

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