John Grade wins the Arts Innovator Award! For more about this sculpture at MOHAI, click here.
  • Courtesy of the artist
  • John Grade wins the Arts Innovator Award! For more about this sculpture at MOHAI, click here.
John Grade, the sculptor whose huge, hollow-tree-like sculpture is a forceful, reflective part of the new Museum of History and Industry; and David Shields, the co-author of the much-discussed recent Salinger bio, are the winners of this year's Artist Trust Arts Innovator Awards of $25,000 each.

The full press release is here.

I reached Grade on the phone just before he left for the airport. He's headed to the part of Iceland that's in the Arctic Circle, and he's going to spend the next three years—and the Arts Innovator Award money—creating work based on research he's doing in the Arctic Circle, from Iceland to Siberia to Finland to Alaska. He's meeting with experts and looking at the lands.

Plenty of people have heard about the dramas of coastal villages falling into the sea. But there's quieter and literally deeper change happening farther inland, Grade said, where the melting of pockets of ice folded inside layers of the earth is causing the land to buckle and bulge and depress.

This isnt David Shieldss most recent book, but Im curious about it. Anyone have thoughts on it? Leave them in comments.
  • This isn't David Shields's most recent book, but I'm curious about it. Anyone have thoughts on it? Leave them in comments.
Grade was selected to be part of a group of artists, one from each country with territory in the Arctic Circle, working with an Anchorage-based organization called The Institute of the North. The institute pays for some of his work, but not enough to cover costs, which is where the Arts Innovator Award comes in.

"And then there's the whole issue of what do I make? I know I want to make something that has a presence in museums and can travel, but I think it also needs to be something that happens on site [in the Arctic] and might be there for years," Grade said.

Grade is known for journeying with his sculptures, carting them out into the wilderness or down to the sea, allowing them to record the marks of time and weather.

Shields, in a phone conversation, said "I can't imagine a more meaningful award to me." He's won lots of awards, but this one stands out.

"I'm definitely not interested in mere craftsmanship," Shields said. "I'm interested in breaking the forms and pushing writing into the 21st century et cetera et cetera. The idea that I've received an award for artistic innnovation is meaningful to me in a way that I'm not sure any other award is."

The money will go toward a project he's gearing up work on this summer, including hiring a research assistant.

"It's a work, as most of my work does, that tries to jump between boundaries, but I'm definitely not talking about it yet," Shields said.

So what are the thoughts of these two winning dudes on the questions I've been raising here about why more women don't win major awards?

"I'm getting a sex-change operation so that should help skew it, no," Shields said. "I don't know what to say, other than, you know, I think almost all the writers I love these days are women.

"Everyone I'm crazy about and everyone I teach—Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Amy Fusselman, Samantha Hunt—just happen to be women because I love their work," Shields continued. "So every time any bigwig organization asks me who to give awards to, I almost always mention women not out of any sense of fair play other than I love their work. The main thing I look for is, I love this line of Flaubert's, 'The value of a work of art can be measured by the harm spoken of it.' It creates confusion, and discombobulation, and I think, often, that's work by women artists."

Asked for his ideas about why no women have won the Thurber Prize for humor writing in its entire existence since 1996, Shields said, "Just think of all the Nobel Prize winners [in Literature] who are godawful writers," Shields said. "One should never take these awards too seriously."

Shields said he doesn't serve on panels, but Grade said he has lots of experience at it, including at Artist Trust.

Grade couldn't help but notice that seven of the eight finalists for this year's Arts Innovator Award were men: "It's a really important issue. I thought about it before I even got it."

Today's announcement from Artist Trust lists the 10 panelists for the award; 6 are women and 4 are men. Now that their names have been released, it will be possible to ask them directly how they tangle with various competing priorities, from disciplinary to geographic to stylistic to the race-class-gender knot. Robin Held of Reel Grrls was not immediately available for comment, but I'm hoping a conversation with more voices can begin.

Artist Trust is not making public how many men and women applied this year, citing confidentiality. There's always the chance that far, far more men than women applied, and one in eight was actually a generous breakdown for women—we just have no way of knowing. "That would be very telling," Grade said. "Then, we could get to the base of it."

"You know what's weird about that is, Artist Trust is the most transparent organization," Grade continued. "I've been a juror for pretty much every organization in our city. I remember being on a committee with (curators) Liz Brown and Jennifer Gately... and there were all these extra people in the room, and at a certain point it occurred to me, who are these people? It turned out they were just members of the public who wanted to sit in and watch. I think this was for fellowships. So Artist Trust has this policy that anybody from the public can just come in and watch—at least at that point they did."

But the larger issue, he feels, is how and when to raise the question of demographics in those jury rooms in the first place. In other words, how much should race and gender and class matter compared to other factors?

"Regardless of whether this is a specific case of whether there is a bias, if you look at the Betty Bowen and you look at all these things that men are getting—the Portland Art Museum [Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, where the large award has never gone to a woman]—is this just a coincidence?" Grade said. "I have no way of knowing.

"I kind of think that at the heart of it is these jurors' biases," Grade continued. He didn't mean "bias" in a scolding way. He meant it in a real-talk way.

"What [I] am thinking about is not so much how clear I am with myself about these issues, but to what degree I would bring that up with other jurors, because then it becomes an issue," Grade said.

"When you bring it up, it becomes part of why you're choosing people," Grade continued, "and that is the curious part. I think it might be really interesting to just find out perspectives from people who jury these things. It's not a simple thing. It's not just let's choose the best people—especially if you're choosing from different mediums. So how on earth do you do that? ... It's a big conversation, but probably a pretty important thing."