Most people who pay attention to the local art scene know about the San Diego Art Prize, but few truly understand it. The confusion and some ongoing complaints are driving organizers to propose major changes to what's become an important and mostly lauded institution over its nine-year history.
"You know, it's always good to have something morph and become something else—nothing should stay exactly the same forever," says Patricia Frischer, coordinator of San Diego Visual Arts Network, the volunteer-run nonprofit organization behind the prize.
The Art Prize is an award given every year to two established artists and two emerging artists. The four artists win modest grants, exhibitions, educational materials, a write-up in the Art Prize catalog and a decent amount of press. Each year, a special committee convenes to select the two established artists, and each of those artists is then asked to handpick an emerging artist to share the prize.
And here's where things start to get wonky—the established artists are given a list of names of emerging artists chosen by a nominating committee made up of past Art Prize winners and arts professionals. The list is called the "New Contemporaries," and the artists on it are included in an annual exhibition. The established artists are encouraged to go to the exhibition and they can either pick someone from the show or completely ignore the list and award the Art Prize to any local artist they want. Over the years, this piece of the Art Prize puzzle has led to some grumblings, especially from the nominated emerging artists who feel like they've been ignored in exchange for favoritism and even nepotism, as was the case in 2013 when established artist James Hubbell picked his own son, Brennan Hubbell.
"I didn't see the point of having nominations only to [have the established artists] not select any of the emerging artists nominated," says Andrea Chung, one of the dozen emerging artists named this year. "[The San Diego Art Prize] is well-intentioned, but I didn't care for the format."
Another common criticism of the Art Prize is the categorization of artists. In many cases, the artists nominated as emerging are just as accomplished as the established artists. That was certainly an issue in 2009, when longtime artist Richard Allen Morris picked his buddy, Tom Driscoll, to share the prize. Driscoll's been making great art almost as long as Morris.
"You know what emerging is," says Dave Ghilarducci, an artist nominated in the emerging category last year even though his credentials clearly indicate that he's better described as established. "It's young up-and-comers or someone just starting out. If there's a question, then the artist probably isn't really emerging."
Frischer is currently addressing these concerns. She gave CityBeat a first look at a draft of proposed changes, which includes eliminating the established and emerging categories and instead just awarding four artists the Art Prize. Past winners and arts professionals would nominate the artists—similar to how nominations for emerging artists work now. Frischer is also considering letting the public vote alongside the Art Prize committee to select the four winners.
Other changes are proposed, but nothing will go into effect until next year.
A total of almost $50,000 has ended up in the hands of area artists thanks to the Art Prize. Interesting collaborations between the established and emerging artists have taken place, too, and that's the one aspect Frischer says she'll miss most if the proposed changes take place.
"But you always have to sacrifice something," she says. "There's no such thing as a perfect situation."