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Hot on Heels of MacArthur ‘Genius’ Win, Artist Walter Hood Receives $250,000 Gish Prize for Innovation in Art, Social Change

Walter Hood.

Walter Hood.

COURTESY THE GISH PRIZE TRUST

One of the world’s highest-value prizes for artists has its next recipient: Walter Hood, the landscape and public artist whose work ranges from sculpture to landscape design, has won the annual Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, which comes with $250,000 and honors a United States–based artist “who has pushed the boundaries of an art form, contributed to social change, and paved the way for the next generation.”

Hood, who was named as a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called “genius” grants only a couple of weeks ago, has long looked to create work across three distinct areas—landscape, urbanism/research, and art/fabrication.

Over a 20-year career, his work has taken many forms, from planting 150 purple plum trees across five blocks along Courtland Creek in Oakland, California, in 1997, to creating a master plan for the Rosa Parks Neighborhood in Detroit in 2018, to a sculptural installation, titled Double Sight, that examines the fraught legacy of President Woodrow Wilson on the campus of Princeton University, where the college’s School of Public and International Affairs bears his name.

Double Sight was unveiled this past weekend in Princeton, where Wilson has been the subject of protests over his racist views, and Hood was in attendance. In a phone interview with ARTnews from Oakland, where he is based, Hood said that there had been some 80 protestors on hand to object to Princeton’s continued use of Wilson’s name on its buildings and for a school.

“My piece is there in the public square where the protestors were—it’s working in that context,” Hood said. “My work is not always about beauty. It’s about getting people to understand the complexity of spaces, particularly American civic spaces. My hope is that the work can continually do that.”

[Read more about the world’s top artist prizes.]

Hood is also currently at work on redesigning the gardens and terraces for the Oakland Museum, set to open next year, and the landscape design for the forthcoming International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, which is expected to open in 2021. Other notable projects include outdoor spaces for the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2005, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles in 2015, and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York in 2015, as well as master plans for the Oakland Waterfront in 2005, Baldwin Hills Park in Los Angeles in 2002, and the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor in Los Angeles.

In addition to winning the Gish and MacArthur Prizes this year, Hood was also an inaugural recipient of the Knight Foundation’s Public Spaces Fellowship in June, which comes with $150,000. He said that he plans to use the money from all of his winnings to realize a number of previously unrealized public art sculptures.

“Very early on in teaching and in my practice, I was always interested in the public space,” Hood said. “How I could reach underserved community through imaginative work? We were trying to bring art into the work as a way to inspire people.”

Previous winners of the Gish Prize include Shirin Neshat, Maya Lin, Meredith Monk, Frank Gehry, Robert Wilson, Trisha Brown, Spike Lee, Bob Dylan, and Isabel Allende.

This year’s jury included artist Mary Miss; Jamie Bennett, the executive director of ArtPlace America; Edwin Torres, the CEO of Grantmakers in the Arts; and Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater who served as chair. Hood was chosen from among a group of 70 finalists.

In a statement, Eustis said on behalf of the jury, “We found we were all asking similar questions about what an artist might do for people today. Who could reconnect us with the natural world and help us care for the environment, bring communities together and offer ways to think about our society, give us the experience of beauty we need and meanings we can live with? We realized that every question we asked had the same answer: Walter Hood.”

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