In the cutthroat modern art world, writers generally have no financial skin in the game. They're not sellers, buyers, or competitors. They're not related to the artist. But they can provide artists with a valuable service by bringing attention to their work. They can also help define and shape the arts.
This sentiment lies at the heart of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation's Rabkin Award for art critics and journalists who write about art in the public media (as opposed to the academic press). Leo Rabkin was an abstract artist and folk art collector based in New York City until his passing in 2015. This fall, the Portland, Maine-based foundation will award eight art writers $50,000 each.
That's a pretty impressive windfall for a niche area of arts philanthropy whose other main player is the Warhol Foundation and its Arts Writers Grant Program. A joint effort with Creative Capital, the program provides grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 to approximately 20 writers annually whose work addresses contemporary visual art.
Both programs are a critical lifeline for art writers navigating a perilous professional landscape. In 2015, WQXR devoted a show to how cost-conscious newspapers are devoting less space to "serious" criticism. As if on cue, in 2016 the Wall Street Journal cut its arts coverage to cope with declining ad revenue.
Fortunately, the Warhol and Rabkin Foundations aren't the only funders concerned about thinning arts coverage. In late 2016, a group of donors, including the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, joined forces to pay the Boston Globe to hire an in-house music, leading me to wonder if the "foundation-based critic" could represent a viable model for sustainable arts coverage moving forward.
Rabkin Foundation Board member Edgar Allen Beem acknowledges the inherent unsexiness in the arts writing space, noting that "the audience for art writing is far smaller than the audience for art and the material rewards are minimal." That said, he may now want to amend the latter part of that statement. As he notes, the Rabkin prize's material award of $50,000 is "five times the amount that writers get when they win a Pulitzer Prize."
Each nominee will be awarded $1,000 and will be invited to submit writing samples to the three-judge panel. The panel will announce the winners around September 1st.
Which brings me back to Rabkin. He was an accomplished artist whose work appeared at prominent museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was also an avid collector. After marrying Dorothea Herz in 1958 the couple created a landmark collection of American folk art. The Rabkins donated many works to the American Folk Art Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
The couple created their foundation in 2000. Originally based in New York City, after Rabkin's death it moved to Portland for its affordability, size, and "fresh vibe."