(Left to right) Artworks by 2022 Sondheim Art Prize finalists James Williams II, Megan Koeppel, and Maren Henson will be displayed in an exhibit at the Walters Art Museum starting Thursday. Photos courtesy of Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

Starting Thursday, the Walters Art Museum will exhibit the work of three finalists vying for one of Maryland’s most prestigious art awards, the Janet & Walter Sondheim Art Prize.

For the first time, the top prize is $30,000, up from $25,000 in previous years. The second and third place finishers will receive awards as well — another first for the awards program.

This year’s show, which runs from July 21 through Sept. 18, marks the first time since 2019 that the museum has had an in-person exhibit of the finalists’ work. In 2020 and 2021, the awards program was shifted to a virtual format, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a huge pleasure to welcome you this morning,” said Walters Executive Director and CEO Julia Marciari-Alexander, at a press preview Wednesday. “We haven’t done this in a long time…. This is a prize that is truly one of the most prestigious in our area, and even nationally.”

The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA) presents the annual award in partnership with the museum, M&T Bank and the Maryland State Arts Council. Named after two civic leaders who were strong supporters of the arts and Baltimore, the prize is given “to assist in furthering the career of a visual artist or visual artist collaborators living and working in the Greater Baltimore region.”

According to CEO Donna Drew Sawyer, BOPA received more than 300 applications this year. The group was narrowed to 13 semi-finalists, and then to three finalists. A winner will be announced during a reception at the Walters on July 28 from 6 to 8 p.m.

The 2022 Sondheim Art Prize finalists are: Maren Henson, 32; Megan Koeppel, 26, and James Williams II, 40. Williams was a semi-finalist last year, but Henson and Koeppel haven’t previously been finalists or semi-finalists. All three are graduates of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

The three artists explore entirely different themes.

Henson examines the role of conspiracy and how it has shaped American culture. Her videos, drawings, sculpture and sound installations show how cultural narratives are manipulated and controlled, following incidents such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Henson received a master’s degree from the Mount Royal School of Art at MICA in 2017 and lives in Baltimore.

Koeppel is a fiber artist who was born in Wisconsin and earned a bachelor’s degree in 2018 from MICA, where she studied fine art and curatorial practices. Her work in the Sondheim exhibit involves repurposing materials such as scrap fabric to create new quilted works and soft sculptures.

Williams is a curator and interdisciplinary artist whose work includes painting, sculpture and photography. His works center on topics related to social and cultural identity in the United States, tied together by self-portraiture and narration. He says he “uses satire and visual riposte to challenge the ambiguity of the Black construct as both an object and abject.” Originally from upstate New York, he received his master’s degree from the Mount Royal School of Art at MICA, where he currently teaches.

Jurors for the competition were curator Catherine Morris and artists Kambui Olujimi and Jean Shin. Lou Joseph is BOPA’s Prize and Competition Manager.

In addition to the top prize, BOPA will award residencies to the remaining two finalists. The artist who finishes second will get a six-week, fully-funded residency at Civitella Ranieri in the Umbria region of Italy, and the artist who places third will get a six-month residency at the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower at 21 S. Eutaw St. in Baltimore.

The other 10 semi-finalists will have an opportunity to exhibit their work at the School 33 Art Center, located at 1427 Light Street, from Sept. 1 to Oct. 30.

Sawyer said she hopes to keep the top prize at $30,000 from now on, but that ultimately will depend on support from its partners. She said the prize money was increased in part to help cover the rising cost of materials artists use in their work, and other expenses artists have incurred since the start of the pandemic.

“The Baltimore Office of Promotion and The Arts is intimately aware of the increased cost of making art, and the pressure of making art,” she said. “We are committed to ensuring that the Sondheim Award…has a significant impact on an artist’s career.”

Hours for the Walters Art Museum, located at 600 N. Charles St., are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and from 1 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission is free.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.