The Portland Phoenix

Art Seen: Rabkin rewards art writing

Untitled watercolor by Leo Rabkin

An untitled watercolor by Leo Rabkin. (Courtesy Rabkin Foundation)

The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation is a Portland-based nonprofit that is quietly making a national name for itself. It would like to become the Pulitzer Prize of art writing, but after only five years it’s not quite there yet.

On the other hand, the Pulitzer Prize only carries a cash award of $15,000 while the Rabkin award is $50,000, so we may eventually catch up.

Dorothea and Leo Rabkin in La Jolla, California, circa 1982. (Courtesy Rabkin Foundation/Lauri Robert Martin)

I say “we,” because it has been my honor these past five years to be one of four trustees of the Rabkin Foundation, which was started with proceeds from the Rabkins’ estate. 

Leo Rabkin (1919-2015) was an abstract artist who had some critical and commercial success in New York City, but by virtue of a long life lived in Manhattan, he left a considerable estate in the form of two downtown buildings. The value of the foundation is now about $20 million, of which we must disperse 5 percent per year.

All of the heavy lifting of the Rabkin Foundation is done by trustee/director Susan Larsen, who was a friend of the Rabkins, and gallery manager Danielle Frye, a Maine College of Art & Design graduate. The other two trustees are art historian Nancy Karlins Thoman of New York City and art critic/curator Deborah Irmas of Los Angeles.

When Larsen, who is best known in Maine as the former curator of the Farnsworth Museum, asked me to serve as a trustee of the foundation, I was under the mistaken impression that I was going to get to hand out $50,000 prizes. In fact, the Rabkin Foundation uses a unique nominating process in which the trustees merely select nominators, not winners.

Writers cannot apply for a Rabkin, nor can just anyone nominate a writer. That would require more than a two-person staff. Instead, each year we invite 16 people from all around the country to nominate a deserving art writer. The nominators tend to be museum and gallery people who know their local art media. The nominees are paid a $1,000 stipend to submit writing samples, which are then read by a panel of three distinguished jurors. Eight of the nominees are awarded $50,000 each.

Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times, and her husband, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, received lifetime achievement awards last year from the Rabkin Foundation. (Courtesy Rabkin Foundation/Alexandra Morrow)

Since the Rabkin awards began in 2017 the foundation has awarded some $2.5 million directly to art writers nationwide: 41 annual winners and three writers singled out for lifetime achievement awards. 

The foundation also gave $20,000 grants last year to nine art publications, among them The Brooklyn Rail, New Art Examiner, and Maine Arts Journal. Because the Rabkins were avid collectors of folk art, their foundation has also given $85,000 to support folk and outsider art projects.

Smaller discretionary grants have been made to arts organizations, including local recipients Creative Portland, Indigo Arts Alliance, Maine College of Art & Design, Union of Maine Visual Arts, and The Chart.

As much as I enjoy supporting the annual prize winners, who have included well-known writers such as Phong Bui of The Brooklyn Rail, Sebastian Smee of The Washington Post, and John Yau of Hyperallergic, as well as regional writers like Bob Keyes of the Portland Press Herald, I get most excited about the lifetime achievement awards, in part because they are selected by the trustees.

When the performance of the foundation’s investments dictates the distribution of more money (a wonderful problem to have) we have given special awards for a critic’s lifetime of work. Just before the pandemic lockdown, we gave an award to The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, who came to Portland with her husband, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, my favorite art writer. In my best Rabkin moment, I got to have dinner with Smith and Saltz at Fore Street.

Because The New York Times is finicky about letting its writers accept awards, Roberta Smith donated her $50,000 to the Art for Justice Fund, which uses art to address the problem of mass incarceration.

Author and critic Carl Little, who writes about art in Maine, is a Rabkin Lifetime Achievement Award winner. (Courtesy Rabkin Foundation/Erin Little)

The two other lifetime achievement awards were given to Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight and, just this year, author/critic Carl Little, who has spent 30 years writing about art in Maine for state and national audiences in Art in America, Art New England, Hyperallergic, and Maine Boats, Homes and Harbors.

It was my pleasure and privilege to make the phone call to let Little know the Rabkin Foundation was honoring him. Needless to say, he was thrilled. The first year the awards were given one of the eventual winners had to be convinced that the Rabkin award was not a scam. (Imagine a foundation you’ve never heard of calling to give you $50,000!)

That doesn’t happen anymore.

“People are aware now,” Larsen says. “They know it’s by nomination, but people are aware it’s a possibility in their lives.”

Maine has a long and deep history of artists and arts organizations such as the Skowhegan School and Haystack craft school. The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation is now putting Maine on the map for art criticism and writing.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. As a Rabkin trustee, he is not eligible for an award.

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