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‘The Hometown Team’

Rappaport Prize at the deCordova encourages local artists to push boundaries.

After six years as curator at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., there’s one part of her job that Sarah Montross looks forward to most of all.

The Rappaport Prize call.

“I usually have to repeat what I’m telling them,” she said. “Multiple times.”

And it’s no less wonderful news each time she repeats it. After all, what she’s sharing with the unsuspecting artist on the other end of the phone is that they’ve just been named the winner of one of the most generous contemporary art awards of its kind: the Rappaport Prize at the deCordova.

For 21 years, the Rappaport Prize has been awarded to a contemporary artist with strong connections to New England and a proven record of achievement. So for 21 years, it has been the privilege of a deCordova representative to make that call.

The award comes with but one obligation – a public lecture – and a bounty of benefits, not the least of which is a cash prize that has grown to $35,000 following a $500,000 endowment by the Rappaport Foundation in 2019.

“In our day and age, where we’re so accustomed to groupthink and corporate personhood, there’s not often a space for the detour of individuality that an artist maintains, and we ask artists to hold that place for us in society. Sometimes their ideas exceed the possibilities of even the physical world, so I just love that the Rappaport Prize offers someone to think without limitation in a really creative way.”

Sarah Montross

And whereas many such monetary awards are restricted to specific proposals and are closely monitored as the recipient embarks on that particular work, the Rappaport dollars have no such conditions. So for the artist, for whom self-actualization and audience connectivity depends largely on untethered exploration, it’s a critical difference.

“In our day and age, where we’re so accustomed to groupthink and corporate personhood, there’s not often a space for the detour of individuality that an artist maintains, and we ask artists to hold that place for us in society,” Montross said. “Sometimes their ideas exceed the possibilities of even the physical world, so I just love that the Rappaport Prize offers someone to think without limitation in a really creative way.”

One such creator is Liz Deschenes, a Braintree, Mass., native who is now based in New York and was the 2014 Rappaport Prize recipient. Described as a “quiet giant” of contemporary photography by The New York Times, Deschenes’s meditative work in photography and sculpture explores the relationship between how an image is created, displayed, and seen.

“The work changes, the places where the work is on view changes, the viewer changes,” she said. “When my work is successful, all those three things are at play, and changing in relationship to each other.”

The prize came during a time when Deschenes was in the midst of a major, year-long project for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and provided her the flexibility to experiment with concepts and materials that might have seemed a bit risky without the additional, unrestricted funds.

“It allowed me to explore in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. “It opened up possibilities and alleviated a little bit of tension.”

That freedom of exploration inherent in the Rappaport Prize is additionally important, Montross said, because it allows an artist to push back any temptation to play it safe. Many of the recent winners are forceful, outspoken advocates for social justice, and more than just a validation, the award serves as a call to further action, a challenge to continue their respective missions.

“Throughout the prize’s history are agents of change,” Montross said. “These are really conscious and ethical people, and you can feel that in the threads of their artwork, so a prize like this just generates even more generosity from them.

“Giving them the award actually means that many people are going to benefit, not just the artists.”

Most recently, Sonya Clark is that artist whose message has been amplified to the benefit of many through the Rappaport Prize. Clark, a Washington, D.C. native and Professor of Art at Amherst (Mass.) College, was the 2020 Rappaport winner for a career that has and continues to powerfully address Black experience in the United States.

Clark is known for using everyday items in her work, such as hair combs and flags, in ways that both celebrate the contributions of Black culture and take on the racial injustices that have plagued American history.

“Unraveling,” for example, is a thread-by-thread, public unwinding of the Confederate battle flag. “Obama and Lincoln” is a portrait of President Barack Obama created only with pennies. And “Madam C.J. Walker” is a breathtaking, floor-to-ceiling portrait of the African American entrepreneur, philanthropist and social activist – made entirely of black combs.

Clark called the Rappaport Prize, “a verdant promise, one that will help germinate the creative impulses my ancestors planted in my DNA long ago.”

Another creator whose mission to uplift has been magnified by the Rappaport Prize is Titus Kaphar, the 2018 winner. Based in New Haven, Conn., Kaphar is one of the country’s most innovative and provocative artists who physically reconfigures his own paintings and sculptures to rewrite commonly accepted historical narratives, reveal their unspoken truths and expose contemporary relevance in a way that reckons with American’s racial past.

And beyond his artwork, Kaphar has established NXTHVN (“Next Haven”), a $12 million nonprofit creative center in New Haven that provides residencies and empowers emerging artists and curators of color through education and access.

“He’s not only creating his own career, but he’s also spreading the love by empowering others,” Montross said. “When I think of these Rappaport winners, many of them have that sort of a profile.”

It is now a list 21 artists long, spanning back to Jennifer Hall in 2000, including Annee Spileos Scott (2001), Lars-Erik Fisk (2002), John Bisbee (2003), Debra Olin (2004), Sarah Walker (2005), Abelardo Morell (2006), Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (2007), Ursula von Rydingsvard (2008), Dave Cole (2009), Liza Johnson (2010), Orly Genger (2011), Suara Welitoff (2012), Ann Pibal (2013), Deschenes (2014), Matt Saunders (2015), Barkley Hendricks, Sam Durant (2017), Kaphar (2018), Daniela Rivera (2019) and Clark in 2020.

“It’s kind of like being on the hometown team,” Saunders said. “The Rappaport Prize has served this kind of community function of making visible the breadth and depth of art that has happened outside of New York City.”

And it’s a community that takes pride in its lineage. As Titus Kaphar said upon getting the Rappaport call and reflecting on the group he was thereby joining, “I immediately understood the honor of being included.”

For Deschenes, the prize was not only a personal affirmation of her work, but in general an acknowledgement of the place the arts hold in society.

“It’s significant,” she said, “when the visual or practicing arts are considered alongside the sciences and the humanities, without hierarchy, when it’s not thought of as separate-from, but considered-with.

“That’s unique to the Rappaport Foundation.”

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