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MFA shelving of award draws artists’ ire

Local prize placed on hiatus in midst of $504m building drive

Jo Ann Rothschild, the first recipient of the Maud Morgan Prize, is among those upset the MFA has placed the $5,000 award on hiatus. Jo Ann Rothschild, the first recipient of the Maud Morgan Prize, is among those upset the MFA has placed the $5,000 award on hiatus. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / December 8, 2010

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The award money was never much to begin with. But that did not bother Laura Chasman. Winning the $5,000 Maud Morgan Prize meant a show at the Museum of Fine Arts.

“It was more visibility than I had ever received,’’ said Chasman, a painter who lives in Roslindale and won the award in 2001. “It was thrilling.’’

That’s why she is so frustrated with the MFA. Earlier this year, angered by the museum’s failure to issue the Morgan Prize since 2006, Chasman sent an e-mail complaint to director Malcolm Rogers about the award, which was established in 1993 in honor of its namesake New England artist.

She found it particularly bothersome that the MFA stopped issuing the award as it was raising $504 million for an expansion project.

“Why is there not money for the prize when there’s all this money to build a new building?’’ Chasman asked.

MFA contemporary art chairman Edward Saywell said in an interview this week that the museum will reinstate the Morgan Prize in late 2011. He said it has been on hiatus because, as the MFA moves to revamp its entire contemporary arts program, he wanted to make sure the award process was fully analyzed. In particular, Saywell said that the portion drawn off the $100,000 endowment each year for the award does not cover the total annual expenses of the prize, including the opening reception and exhibition.

“How do we ensure that the fund is viable as we move forward?’’ said Saywell. “We want this to be as meaningful for the artist as it is for the museum.’’

That explanation does not sit well with some former Morgan winners, the late artist’s friends, and some of the people who gave money to create the prize. The $5,000, they note, already pales in comparison to the $25,000 artist prizes awarded each year by the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park and every other year by the Institute of Contemporary Art. The least the MFA could have done as it raised millions for its building project is to keep the Morgan Prize active, they say.

“It’s appalling,’’ said Kyra Montagu, a friend of Morgan’s and a contributor to the endowment fund. “What this is supposed to do is give a boost to a Boston woman artist in her mid-career. It’s really important.’’

The prize was created by a group of art enthusiasts on behalf of Morgan, who was still active as an artist and took pride in the plan to support other women. Morgan was a painter who, in the 1930s and ’40s, exhibited in New York with such artists as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. But she got married, and her career took a back seat. In 1940, her husband, the painter Patrick Morgan, took a job at Phillips Academy, and the couple moved to Andover.

Later, Morgan would be recognized as an accomplished artist, but her work, which ranged from abstract to figurism, never rose to the recognition level of her 20th century peers. She died in 1999 at age 96.

Since her win, Chasman held shows at the Allston Skirt Gallery and the Clark Gallery in Lincoln. Other Morgan winners have included Jill Weber, Ambreen Butt, and Shelley Reed, all of whom have had shows in Boston and New York City. Video artist Suara Welitoff, the 2002 winner, has a piece, “Tell Me,’’ currently on view in the museum’s Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. In addition, the MFA, which purchased three of her works at the time of the prize, acquired four more works this year.

Mags Harries, the British-born sculptor who lives in Cambridge and was friends with Morgan, said she was outraged at the MFA’s failure to award the prize in recent years.

“What does it say about the MFA?’’ she asked. “They haven’t had a great commitment to contemporary art anyway and certainly not to local artists.’’

Not everyone is so critical of the MFA. Newbury Street gallery owner Victoria Munroe, who helped start the prize, said that she has sold the museum many pieces created by local artists. She thought Saywell’s explanation sounded reasonable.

“It sounds to me like there aren’t enough funds and people aren’t giving,’’ said Munroe. “The most important thing to know is if they’d like to raise more interest in the issue and collect more money from it, perhaps they’re looking for ways to do it.’’

The hiatus has not gone unnoticed. In October, arts blogger and Boston Phoenix freelance art critic Greg Cook urged his readers to write to MFA director Malcolm Rogers urging him to give the award. Cook announced later that he has added “the Maud Morgan Prize for Local Museums That Overlook Local Women Artists’’ prize for the upcoming New England Art Awards.

South End artist Jo Ann Rothschild, the first Morgan recipient in 1993, said she was not surprised the MFA put the award on hiatus. Rothschild said she has long been disappointed that the work she sold the museum as part of her exhibition, a piece called “In Franklin Field (For Kimberly Rae Harbour),’’ which had been inspired by the 1991 rape and slaying of Harbour, has not been on display since her winning show. Rothschild sold the work for $3,500, the size of the Morgan Prize until 1999, when it was boosted to $5,000.

“At the time, I thought it should be more, but I also thought, this has the chance of being important,’’ she said. “It’s a way in which the MFA is finally paying attention to people who live in this area. It’s the MFA finally paying attention to contemporary art. It’s the MFA bringing women into the conversation.’’

Did she want the museum to return “In Franklin Field,’’ she was asked.

“I want them to show it,’’ said Rothschild. “I want to see it next to Rothko. I want to see it next to Kathy Porter. I want to see it.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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