The Genius Awards, you may have noticed, are changing. In 2003, the first year The Stranger gave a cheap chocolate cake and $5,000 to a visual artist, to a theater artist, to a writer, to a filmmaker, and to an arts organization, we chose recipients most people had never heard of. We were going for the "unknown, undershown, underfunded, underpraised," as Emily Hall, then arts editor, put it. Our thinking was: If we're going to give an artist the attention that comes with a Genius Award—and the money—it should be an artist whose career could really benefit from attention and money. It wouldn't make sense to give the literature award to someone like, say, Rebecca Brown. She already has a reputation. She already has a huge body of work. This philosophy carried into the second year, when we continued yanking the unknown, undershown, underfunded, and underpraised into the spotlight, including an actress best known to the fringe theater world, an experimental filmmaker, a hard-to-describe performance-art collective, and an obscure poet.
Then, in the third year of the Genius Awards, we gave the literature award to Rebecca Brown. The truth is—I can tell you this because I've been at every Genius Awards meeting since the beginning—Brown's name came up almost every time The Stranger's arts editors had ever discussed the literature category. It finally dawned on us that our unknown, undershown, underfunded, underpraised mantra had its oppressive side, that it was preventing us from giving the award to the one novelist whose work we couldn't stop talking about and who wasn't slowing down. Brown had a new book coming out, she'd just written a play, and she'd recently collaborated with dancers and painters. We chucked tradition to give it to the most deserving person, and in doing so expanded the idea of the awards to fit a city where exciting, important work is done at all stages of individual careers.
This year's crop of winners is interesting for a lot of reasons. The theater winner is, for the first time, a set designer—Jennifer Zeyl, who had been on last year's shortlist (then called "Ones to Watch") and who is a founding member of Washington Ensemble Theater (which, by the way, totally dominates the Genius Award shortlists, past and present, in the theater and arts-organization categories). The visual art winner is a pair of artists formally trained as architects who work together under the name Lead Pencil Studio, live together in a steel and glass house they designed in Squire Park, and are represented by the new gallery Lawrimore Project, which just so happens to represent three of the four Genius Award winners in the visual art category to date. (Coincidence? Conspiracy? Who can say?) James Longley is the first documentarian to win in the film category (his short Sari's Mother, about a 10-year-old Sunni infected with HIV from a blood transfusion during Saddam Hussein's regime, will have its Seattle premiere at the Genius Awards party, and his feature-length Iraq in Fragments opens at the Varsity on November 10). And Jonathan Raban is the first nonfiction writer—though he also writes novels—to win in the literature category. Raban and Longley's work is a departure from the norm in the Genius Awards tradition in its urgent political content.
We love departures from the norm. On the Boards, which has a bigger national reputation than any arts organization that's ever won in that category—and a growing international reputation—has made departures from the norm its absolute specialty. It does more to push new performances into the world than any other local institution.
We would not be able to give out these awards—or put together an issue like this (with photography by Alice Wheeler and illustrations by Keith Negley), or throw the huge party to which you're invited (featuring portraits of this year's winners by Ellen Forney)—without Art Patch's extraordinary support. Art Patch takes money awarded to the county through the multistate tobacco settlement and spends it on arts causes like a gallery in the Tashiro Kaplan building, the Genius Awards, and a new grant program (up to $2,400 for a handful of applicants every three months—no, I'm not making this up). The quarterly grants are the latest leap forward in Art Patch's plan to "invigorate funding options" for Seattle artists, writers, performers, and filmmakers. Why are they doing it? "Because when Seattle's arts community has more money than it knows what to do with, it won't need to rely on tobacco funding," to quote www.artpatch.org. More money than it knows what to do with? Hello, utopia.
Two weeks after the party, the Henry Art Gallery—with still more support from Art Patch—opens a two-month exhibition of the history (so far!) of The Stranger's Genius Awards. The Henry is drawing on its wide-ranging curatorial expertise to represent every winner in every category from the past four years, including those you never thought you'd see between the walls of a museum. We are honored that the leading contemporary art museum in Seattle is doing a retrospective on our awards.
Here, we're already fighting over who should win next year.
—Christopher Frizzelle, Arts Editor