Longtime Portland Press Herald features writer Bob Keyes was among eight journalists selected for the inaugural Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Prize in visual arts journalism, an award that comes with a $50,000 grant.

The awards from the Rabkin Foundation, a Portland-based, artist-endowed charitable foundation, were announced Tuesday.

Keyes, 54, was joined by Phong Bui of The Brooklyn Rail, a monthly arts and culture journal; Jason Farago, art critic for The New York Times; Charles Desmarais, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle; Jeff Huebner, a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Chicago Reader; Carolina Miranda, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times; Christina Rees, editor-in-chief of Glass Tire, a Texas-based online visual arts magazine; and Chris Vitiello, a freelance arts writer based in Durham, North Carolina.

“These are the brave ones, the writers who live by their work and say what they think,” juror Lisa Gabrielle Mark, publisher at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said in a prepared statement.

Keyes, who lives in Berwick, has been writing about Maine’s visual and performing arts scene since 2002 and is widely respected within those communities.

“It’s great to see Bob’s unique talent and insightful arts journalism recognized nationally,” said Press Herald Executive Editor Cliff Schechtman.

SEEING VALUE IN ARTS COVERAGE

Keyes said he didn’t know much about the award until he was notified that he had been nominated anonymously this year. Once he was selected as a finalist, he was asked to submit two samples of recent work. He chose a pair of pieces published in April – one on the evolving legacy of the iconic painter Andrew Wyeth on the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the other about a collaboration between two friends, artist Linden Frederick and author Richard Russo, that paired 15 oil-on-canvas paintings of stark nighttime scenes by Frederick with pieces of short fiction written by authors whom Russo recruited.

“I’ve sort of been waiting to hear one way or the other, but it blew me away to be included,” Keyes said. “The other (winners) were all from big cities, but I’m not surprised that Maine is represented. I think it speaks to the arts community – not just the artists, but people who appreciate the arts.”

He credited his editors at the Press Herald for recognizing the value of covering the arts.

“I think the reason why many of my stories end up on the front page is because they understand why arts is important,” he said. “It would be easy for our paper to give up on arts coverage, as many newspapers have.”

Keyes grew up in Massachusetts but spent a lot of time visiting Maine as a child and young adult. Before joining the Press Herald, he worked for a newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He credits his mother, a former librarian, for his fluency in the arts, but said he’s had to learn a lot about the state’s vibrant arts community.

“When I interviewed for this job, I said I wouldn’t be an expert,” he said. “I try to remember that I’m not writing for the people who already know this stuff.”

He called the $50,000 accompanying grant “life-changing.”

GENESIS OF THE RABKIN FOUNDATION

Other participating prize jurors were Paul Ha, director of the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and Walter Robinson, artist, art critic and former editor from New York City.

The Rabkin Foundation was created in 2000 by Dorothea and Leo Rabkin, who were well-known for decades in the arts-heavy Chelsea district of Manhattan. The foundation is headquartered in Portland even though the couple had no real ties to Maine.

Leo, a veteran of World War II, was an abstract artist best known for making colorful sculptures from antique boxes. He was a member of the American Abstract Artists group for more than 50 years, serving as its president from 1964-78. He also served for many years on the Fine Arts Federation of New York.

He married Dorothea Herz in 1958 and together they created a renowned collection of mostly folk and outsider art. The Rabkins donated many works to the American Folk Art Museum, including the iconic whirligig sculpture of Uncle Sam riding a bicycle, according to Leo’s obituary.

Their namesake prize was created in 2015 after Leo’s death to “acknowledge the role played by visual arts journalists who create the important ground of understanding between artists and the general public.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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