The Universal Notebook: And the Rabkin Award for art writing goes to …

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Leo Rabkin was an abstract artist and folk art collector in New York City. A member of the American Abstract Artists group for more than 50 years, he served as its president from 1964-1978.

When Rabkin died in 2015 at the great age of 95, he was not a well-known artist. But he did leave an impressive archive of work and several properties in Manhattan. The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation is now using the proceeds from the sale of those properties to preserve and promote Rabkin’s work and to award cash prizes to art writers in America.

The hope is that the Rabkin Award will become for art critics and journalists what the James Beard Award is to chefs and restaurateurs. A James Beard Award, however, carries no cash prize. This fall, the Rabkin Foundation will award eight art writers $50,000 each. That’s five times the amount that writers get when they win a Pulitzer Prize. If done right, the Rabkin Award could be a great boon to an often overlooked part of the art world.

I am not eligible for a Rabkin Award because I am on the board of directors of the foundation. Though I never met the Rabkins, I was invited to serve on the board by their great friend Susan Larsen, the executive director of the foundation, largely because I have been writing about art in Maine for 40 years. These days, I have no place to write about art with any regularity, but getting an opportunity to help reward writers who do is an honor and a privilege.

I first met Larsen some 20 years ago, when she was the curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. She had previously served as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and as a professor of art history at the University of Southern California. She subsequently worked as a collector for the Archives of American Art.

Since Rabkin’s death, Larsen has worked tirelessly with the executors of his estate, traveling back and forth between her home in South Portland and New York City, to inventory the Rabkins’ collection, sell the properties, and purchase and renovate the office and gallery at 13 Brown St. in Portland, where the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation is now based.

“We chose Portland,” Larsen told me, “because of the lively arts scene.”

Rabkin directed the foundation to support art writers both because there are many other foundations that benefit artists and because he did not feel his artist colleagues had always supported him. Art writers, whether critics or journalists, can be the best audience an artist can have because they have no vested interests. They are not buyers, sellers, family or competitors, so they can be honest with the artist while presenting the artist’s work to the public and creating a written record of it for posterity.

The audience for art writing is far smaller than the audience for art and the material rewards are minimal. The Rabkin Award will reward journalists and critics who write about art in the public media (newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, etc) as opposed to the academic press.

I wish I could say I get to decide who gets the $50,000 awards, as I can think of a half a dozen art writers in Maine, Boston and New York right off the bat to whom I’d love to give 50 grand, but there is a deliberate process in place to identify potential recipients and to select the winners. My role is simply to help identify potential nominators – artists, gallerist, museum directors, curators, people who know their regional art scenes and the local art press. The regional nominators will propose several dozen writers and a three-person jury will select the winners.

Writers cannot apply for a Rabkin Award the way they can for a Guggenheim, because Larsen and her executive assistant Danielle Frye, an extremely capable 2016 graduate of Maine College of Art, are simply not equipped to deal with the 4,000 applications the Guggenheim Foundation receives each year (let alone the close to 40,000 received by the James Beard Foundation).

Each nominee will be awarded $1,000 and will be invited to submit writing samples to the three-judge panel. Announcement of the first winners of Rabkin Awards will take place on or about Sept. 1. When that time comes, it is my hope that the Rabkin Award both elevates the profession of art journalism and celebrates the art spirit of Portland and Maine.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Queenie42

    We have an insane man in the White House and while I am sure you may think that life goes on it does not for the majority. He scares the Beejeezus out of us with his late night/early morning tweets. Now he is attacking the previous President in his off the wall twittering attempt to deflect his own criminality as a traitor to the Constitution and our government. The man is sick. Sad.

    • EdBeem

      We have to remember what we are fighting for and art is one of those things. Went to Trans Rights Rally yesterday. Met with Sen. Angus King this morning. Doing what I can. I try to vary the column — national, state, local, personal.

      • Queenie42

        Mr. Beem, Angus King voted to confirm Ben Carson!!!! Carson was chosen to destroy HUD and imho is a nut case. Have you read what he is saying? OMG!
        But don’t take my word about Angus. Here is what the Huffington Post has to say about him………
        “King is well known for being ideologically incoherent and procedurally illiterate.”
        You may be fighting for art. I am fighting to bring back enough blue-collar workers to the Democrats so we may be able to take back the majority.
        Then we can talk about art.

        • EdBeem

          We have to pick our battles. Ars longa, vita brevis.

  • Amanda

    Hi, Edgar! If I know an excellent arts writer who is doing an outstanding job of supporting the arts in an “often overlooked” part of upstate NY, what would I have to do to get her writing in front of one of the regional nominators you mentioned? She is, by far, the best dedicated arts writer in the area (across several print outlets), and an award like this would give her the ability to fully dedicate her time to serving our community. She might write for a small paper, but her impact is mighty!

    • EdBeem

      Hard to say. The way the process works we search for people who know their local/regional art scene and its media and rely on them to identify people. The odd thing is that I had someone ask how to nominate Bob Keyes and told them they couldn’t. Then the New England nominator nominated him and he won. Wish I could be more help. Wish I could nominate folks in fact. But send me a link to the person in question and at least I will know
      about her.

      • Amanda

        Thanks so much for being willing to get her on your radar! The writer in question is Rebecca Rafferty. Her writing does so much to support the arts in Rochester, NY (for example: got everyone from board members to local politicians talking about important questions in arts funding). She is, by far, the best arts writer employed by any newspaper in at least 5 county radius; every other paper relies on freelance writers or employs one writer with only a cursory knowledge of the visual arts. Her reviews of exhibits and events are honest, bold, and so well written: Full disclosure, I work at the Flower City Arts Center, which has only helped me to realize how important it is to keep her in this city. If there’s anyone else I could possibly show her writing to, or brag about her to, let me know. For as much as she has supported the arts, it’s the least I could do.

        • EdBeem

          Got it. Thank you.