Yokelism and the Maud Morgan Prize

From the 2010 New England Art Awards
A speech by Greg Cook at The 2010 New England Art Awards Ball held at the Burren in Somerville on Feb. 9, 2011. (Pictured above: New England Journal of Aesthetic Research Executive Director Jasper Percival Cook waves the Yokelism flag at the Awards, as photographed by Jane Cunningham.)

Some of you may have heard of this movement–you might call it a cult–that I’ve started. It’s called Yokelism. Here in New England, so close to the light and gravity of New York, we often slip into envy and low self-esteem. It’s a kind of second city syndrome, and really the worst kind of provincialism, the kind in which we often seem to operate under the belief that if art was made here it can’t be much good, by definition.

Yokelism is about being proudly provincial. Please don’t get confused and think it means being blind cheerleaders. That is not Yokelism. Yokelism is about tough love, because we Yokelists have ambitions for our creative community. But Yokelism is also about recognizing when we produce amazing stuff and championing it like we’re doing here tonight.

And I’d like to invite you to join me in this movement. Say it with me: Yokelism! Doesn’t that make you feel good? Let’s do it one more time: Yokelism!

The New England Art Awards are a Yokelist project. The Awards are focused on exhibits organized here, and writing done here, and especially on art made here in New England. They are an argument about what we value here.

The Awards are an attempt to reconsider and maybe begin to redefine what artistic success means in New England. It means sending out art out into the great wide world. It means getting our art done and out there, whatever it takes. It means public support for the arts. All of this starts at home.

Our region can be a great place to see art, but it can sometimes feel like an arid place to make art. It’s the difference between living in a city with great movie theaters and a city that also makes movies, like “The Town.” (Oh, for the chance to bump into that cutie Ben Affleck on Dot Ave.) Are we a service industry, or manufacturers as well? We need to be both. We define great creative communities by what they show, but also and more so by the art they produce. Without artists busy making work here, our community would be a poorer place, less thrilling, less surprising, less nourishing for all of us who live here.

Let me tell you a story. In 1993, on the occasion of her 90th birthday, friends of Cambridge artist Maud Morgan donated funds to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to establish a prize in her name. The Maud Morgan Purchase Prize would celebrate under-appreciated, mid-career Massachusetts women artists.

Maud Morgan was born into the esteemed New York Cabot family. In the 1920s, she met Ghandi in India and hung around with James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway in Paris. In France, she also met the artist Patrick Morgan, whom she would marry. In the late ’30s, they returned to New York, where she exhibited her art alongside Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Whitney Museum in New York bought her paintings. Then her husband got a teaching job at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and the couple relocated.

When Morgan died in 1999 at age 96, the abstract artist was hailed as “Boston’s Modernist doyenne.” But she had long believed her move to the New England suburbs permanently sidelined her art career. She told the Boston Globe in 1996: “I was in just the right hot spot. I think I could have made it into — I’m not saying the top echelon—but I could have made . . . a certain kind of fame.”

So beginning in 1993, the Museum of Fine Arts gave the Maud Morgan Prize to one local woman artist annually, and has since so honored 13 artists, the last being Ambreen Butt in 2006. Like the others, Butt’s work was showcased at the MFA and she received $5,000 in exchange for one of her paintings entering the museum’s collection. But though the MFA said the Morgan Purchase Prize “was permanently endowed through fundraising by friends of the esteemed artist in 1997,” the MFA has not awarded the prize to any artist since Butt.

The art world often tends to focus on emerging artists. The Maud Morgan Prize is, of course, focused on the extra hurdles that have been faced by women. But it also raises questions of how do we recognize our local artists at midcareer, and at the end of their careers? How do we help local artists not just make starts here, but make lives here?

I’ve been encouraging Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to reinstate the Maud Morgan Prize for a couple years now, because . . . I’ve got a thing for awards, preferably with cash attached. And with the help of a gang of other folks in the community who contacted the MFA and an article by the Boston Globe, the museum announced in December that it would relaunch the Morgan Prize in fall 2011. Hurray! Say it with me: Hurray! Let’s throw in a: Yokelism!

But why wait a year? The Maud Morgan Prize was founded, funded and supported by our community. So in that do-it-yourself community spirit, I added the Maud Morgan Prize to this year’s New England Art Awards. Added it as a polite reminder to our friends at the MFA. And, of course, to recognize a great local midcareer woman artist.

And so the nominees for the 2010 Maud Morgan Prize for midcareer woman artist are: Resa Blatman, Anna Hepler, Barbara Grad, Deb Todd Wheeler, Denise Marika, and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons.

The People’s and Critics’ choice is Anna Hepler.

Anna Hepler couldn’t attend the Awards tonight because she’s out working in Roswell, NM, but she sent the following words:

“I am obliged to speak this evening from the austerity of southeastern New Mexico where I am living and working this year. It is of course very flattering for my artwork to be recognized in this way — work which is ongoing with or without recognition. And it is humbling to be involved with this event at a time in my life when I am seriously questioning my relationship to the art world. I suppose I find it all more and more difficult to explain — to myself, I mean — the deeply rooted reflex to make, then the obligation to name, show, discuss, and perchance sell. This work which seems to want to come into being with or without these outlets and commentaries. For me I fear it will be increasingly hard to rationalize as time goes on. But I am glad for this chance to pause and consider these thoughts, though indirectly, with you. I send along these words with my heartfelt gratitude and warm regards.”

2 Responses to “Yokelism and the Maud Morgan Prize”

  1. JAYGLASSON says:

    Midcareer women artists: how about Esther Solondz; her drawings/photographs/salt images are wonderfully rendered, she’s thought provoking, and she’s respected by her peers.

  2. Jane Marsching says:

    That Jasper is the spitting image of you Greg!!
    Lovely email from Anna!