The five winners of this year’s Alpert Award in the Arts will collect $75,000 each at ceremonies Friday afternoon at the Herb Alpert Foundation in Santa Monica. The award, given since 1995 by musician/record executive Alpert and his wife, Lani Hall, and administered by CalArts, focuses on mid-career artists and is one of the more lucrative annual arts prizes in the United States.
The highest-profile winner is actor-playwright Eisa Davis, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her drama “Bulrusher,” who also was part of the 2008 Obie Award-winning acting ensemble of the rock musical “Passing Strange” and a leading player last year in Melissa James Gibson’s drama “This,” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Irene Borger, director of the Alpert Award, said the judges picked Davis, who is from the Bay Area, for “her profound multiple gifts” and “her portrayal of the complex richness of our American character.”
Performance artist Michael Smith received the visual arts prize for self-starring videos in which, according to Borger’s summary of the judges’ thinking, he has “taken on the role of picaresque hero moving through the world as a Charlie Chaplin of the late 20th Century.” Smith has remained busy in the 21st, including a retrospective called “Mike’s World,” seen several years ago at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. In addition to his Chaplin-esque character, “Mike,” Smith’s personae include include Baby IKKI, a bushy-browed infant in diaper, bonnet and cheap sunglasses.
Dancer-choreographer Nora Chipaumire, based in the United States but hailing from Zimbabwe, was cited for her “steaming hot, extraordinary presence … and her visceral struggles with critical issues of the day.”
Jazz pianist and composer Myra Melford, who teaches at UC Berkeley, was noted for “her ability to take multiple musical traditions into another sphere.” Filmmaker Kevin Everson, whose documentaries focusing on the daily life of African Americans include “Cinnamon,” about a young woman with a passion for drag-racing, received kudos for capturing “the visual power of expressive quotidian gestures of working people.”
The most lucrative arts-specific prize in the United States is now the Doris Duke Artists Awards, which lavished up to $5.8 million last month on its first crop of winners. Unlike the Alpert Awards, the initiative by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is for artists at any stage of their career, and it's budgeted for a finite run of 10 years. The cash grants are $225,000, but winners can increase that to $275,000 if they choose a matching retirement-contribution option and agree to participate in voluntary arts education and audience-building efforts.
Among the Duke Artists were stage directors Anne Bogart, Elizabeth LeCompte and Young Jean Lee, jazz musicians Don Byron, John Hollenbeck, Bill Frissell and Vijay Iyer, puppeteer Basil Twist, multidisciplinary performers Meredith Monk, Rinde Eckert and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and dance artists Reggie Wilson, Ralph Lemon and the husband-wife duo of Eiko Otake and Takashi Koma Otake.