The Vilcek Prize in Fine Arts
Visual artist Nari Ward has never been entirely comfortable with the typical exhibition framework that is the art gallery “white cube.” So while his work has been shown internationally in prominent museums such as the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia; SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he has made the theme of his practice the creation of a public conversation, an intimate dialogue with the viewer—especially one that makes the field of contemporary art more inclusive.
Ward burst onto the crowded New York art scene in 1993 with an artwork titled “Amazing Grace” that achieved this goal of generating a widely discussion. Ward collected 365 abandoned baby strollers that he arranged with pieces of fire hose into the shape of a ship's hull in a former firehouse on 141st Street in Harlem. A recording of "Amazing Grace," sung by Mahalia Jackson, played on a loop throughout the space. Visually and aurally the work conveyed a powerful narrative of the neighborhood to its members—acknowledging their hardscrabble life inflected by an epidemic of illegal drugs and the abandonment of public spaces, and what it all would mean for future generations. Ward says that he always aims to bring to light the history of a place and “bring a kind of urgency of the moment into it, using everyday objects to do that.”
Ward began his journey toward this trenchant awareness of how art can propel crucial conversations about culture as someone who was a cultural outsider; he could see the extraordinary in the apparently ordinary. He was born in Jamaica, coming of age in the capital of Kingston, and then migrating at the behest of his mother, who took it upon herself to ensure that her family would have better scholastic and economic opportunities by coming to the United States. They first landed in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and later moved to Parsippany, New Jersey, where Ward had little exposure to art in museums or galleries, but nevertheless found a love for Renaissance master paintings through books at the local library. He was drawn to images that contained great emotional impact, images of compassion, sadness, and sacrifice. At this point he could not yet imagine himself as an artist, but could envision a vocation as an illustrator, making a living through his talent for drawing.
Through a series of serendipitous meetings with artists who saw a spark of capability in Ward, he was encouraged to apply to the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York and was accepted on the basis of his drawing portfolio. Though he was able to afford only one year at SVA, during that time his professor Juan Gonzalez introduced him to the world of museums and galleries. Shortly thereafter, another teacher, Emily Mason at Hunter College, where Ward took a few classes as a non-matriculated student, recommended him to the Vermont Studio Center for a summer residency. That residency would be the first time that Ward could immerse himself in a community of artists and their families and imagine himself having that life as well.
Following this experience there were more mentors: Al Loving introduced Ward to William T. Williams. Soon Ward was enrolled in Brooklyn College where Williams taught, though Ward had initially intended to pursue an MFA at another school. The astute tutoring he received from Williams inspired Ward to embrace a newfound awareness of himself as a contemporary artist, and this gave him the confidence to construct “Amazing Grace.” Adding to this confidence was Ward’s relationship with the infamous art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who Ward says “taught him to go big or go home.” Ward has taken this to heart, in his practice that looks to reinterpret objects and symbols we are used to seeing in exciting and profound new ways—like his work with the Chase pick (“AfroChase,” 2010), a logo that has been reinterpreted as coextensive with the experience of African-Americans.
Ward has since won several prestigious prizes, such as the Joyce Award, the Rome Prize, and a Bessie Award for visual design working with Ralph Lemon, and awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Pollock Krasner Foundation. These awards attest to Ward being considered among the most brilliant and insightful practitioners of his generation. He says he seeks to always acknowledge that “history is just a big fiction with different moments of truth, and that’s the thing that I really feel I am searching for, to create an object that has this rich dialogue of possibilities for the viewer.” He believes that “there is no one truth; there are all these moments that have truth within them.” This is what makes Ward a brilliant artist: He recognizes that the truth that is waiting to be acknowledged needs to be stated by him. Then he finds a way to tell it.
A Message from Jan and Marica Vilcek
Our founders arrived as penniless refugees over fifty years ago, but with the kindness and opportunity they received in the United States, they went on to accomplish great things in biomedical science and art history. Read their statement on the recent executive order imposing a travel ban.
The Vilcek Prize
Our commemorative prizes are each uniquely designed by Austrian-born designer Stefan Sagmeister, a testament to the individual achievements of each prizewinner. Watch a behind-the-scenes video on how the Vilcek Prize is made.