"Artist as Activist" Goes Global: Behind a US-Based Prize With an International Focus

For compelling proof that the pervasive "artist as activist" trend isn't confined to American shores, last fall, Maria Thereza Alves, a Berlin-based artist won the Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics. The internationally focused prize is given every two years to an artist or group who has "taken great risks to advance social justice in profound and visionary ways."

The center, based at the New School in Manhattan, said that Ms. Alves’s ongoing project, known as "Seeds of Change," "weaves together the fields of art and politics in the most exemplary ways." I'd also add that Alves' work is incredibly timely. As countries (and funders) continue to grapple with the most extensive refugee crisis since the end of World War II, her pieces explore human migration through the idea of seeds distributed inadvertently around the world in the holds of cargo ships.

The prize, first awarded in 2012 to the Chicago artist and activist Theaster Gates and in 2014 to the Syrian film collective Abounaddara, includes a long-term commitment by the school to aid the winner’s projects through academic study or other means. It was established on the 20th anniversary of the List Center, named in honor of the philanthropist and collector Vera List, who died in 2002

Born Vera Glaser, in 1930, she married Albert A. List, who made his family's grocery the basis of a business empire that eventually included RKO Theaters. In the intervening years the Lists' beneficiaries included the Metropolitan Opera, Mount Sinai Hospital, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Jewish Museum and the New School for Social Research, now New School University. They built art centers at M.I.T., Brown University and Swarthmore College, and endowed professorships at various universities and medical schools.

By representing a long-term commitment to the question of "how the arts advance social justice, how we speak of, evaluate and teach such work," the Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics neatly encapsulates the Lists' decades-long work in the field of arts philanthropy.

The gift also suggests that for many funders, all activism is global.