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Let's Hear It for Local Yokels!

Let’s Hear It for Local Yokels!
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Three years ago, on March 6, 2008, I called your attention to Boston Phoenix art critic Greg Cook’s art blog, New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. Two years ago, February 4, 2009, I reported on the Boston Art Awards Cook had created in order to recognize local art and artists. On December 22, 2009, I discussed Cook’s campaign championing Yokelism, roughly translated as paying attention to local art.

Now I’m back to report that the Third Annual New England Art Awards (Greg having expanded the name to reflect the regional reality) were a huge success. Some 123 individuals nominated close to 900 artists, curators, writers, art works, and exhibitions in 19 categories and 2,205 art lovers and 10 art writers cast votes. The winners were announced on the evening of February 9 at the New England Art Awards Ball held in the back room of the Burren, a tavern on Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts.

As Greg Cook explained, “The New England Art Awards are a Yokelist project. The Awards are focused on exhibits organized here, and writing done here, and especially on art made here in New England. They are an argument about what we value here.”

Being a Maine provincialist of sorts, I was pleased that once again one of the big winners was a Maine-based artist.

In 2009, sculptor John Bisbee’s solo exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art won Best Solo Show by a Local Artist. This year the intimitable Bisbee served as emcee of the awards night. In 2010, painter Mark Wethli, Bisbee’s colleague on the Bowdoin College art faculty, won the award for painting. And this year, installation artist Anna Hepler, who has also taught at Bowdoin, was both people’s choice and critics’ pick in Sculpture, her “Makeshift” exhibition at Portland Museum of Art was the critics’ pick for Best Solo Show by a Local Artist, and Hepler was the concensus selection to win the Maud Morgan Prize for midcareer woman artist.

The New England Art Awards do not actually select the Maud Morgan Prize winner, that responsibility falls to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which awards the Maud Morgan Purchase Prize to celebrate under-appreciated, mid-career Massachusetts women artists. The MFA hasn’t awarded the $5,000 Maud Morgan Prize, named for the late abstract artist, since 2006 and, as one of his Yokelist projects, Greg Cook has been lobbying it to do so.

The Boston MFA has announced that it will revive the moribund Maud Morgan Prize, but I’m not sure Anna Hepler will actually be in the running for it. I suppose it depends on how one defines a “Massachusetts artist.” Hepler is a Massachusetts native, but she is based now in Portland and couldn’t be on hand to accept her New England Art Awards because she is doing a year-long artist residency program in New Mexico. The message of thanks she sent to the awards also makes me wonder whether Hepler would accept the Maud Morgan Prize if she did win it.

“I am obliged to speak this evening from the austerity of southeastern New Mexico where I am living and working this year,” Anne Hepler wrote. “It is of course very flattering for my artwork to be recognized in this way – work which is ongoing with or without recognition. And it is humbling to be involved with this event at a time in my life when I am seriously questioning my relationship to the art world. I suppose I find it all more and more difficult to explain – to myself, I mean – the deeply rooted reflex to make, then the obligation to name, show, discuss, and perchance sell. This work which seems to want to come into being with or without these outlets and commentaries. For me I fear it will be increasingly hard to rationalize as time goes on. But I am glad for this chance to pause and consider these thoughts, though indirectly, with you. I send along these words with my heartfelt gratitude and warm regards.”

For an artist who is being recognized in ever-expanding art circles to question her relationship to the art world strikes me as simultaneously ironic and appropriate.

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