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.