Established in 1999 as the ICA Artist Prize, The James and Audrey Foster Prize recognizes Boston artists whose work demonstrates adventurousness, conceptual strength, and skillful execution. 

Sheila Gallagher, Jane D. Marsching, Kelly Sherman, and Rachel Perry Welty all cite one or more of Boston’s amenities as having a positive impact on their work. Both Gallagher and Welty pointed to the preponderance of institutions of higher learning. Sherman derives energy from the no-nonsense, tough-loving, and hard-working style of the city’s inhabitants. Marsching simply stated, “I like the parades.”

Boston, often called the Athens of America, has made significant contributions in the areas of medicine, higher education, sports, and technology. But a healthy debate about Boston’s relative merits as a vital center for contemporary art has circulated among artists, educators, curators, and dealers alike for several decades. Does Boston provide a favorable climate for contemporary art? Do collectors, museums, and other institutions give Boston artists their due? Is there incentive for important artists to live and work here? The ICA is committed to finding creative strategies for addressing these questions. The James and Audrey Foster Prize is of primary importance to this effort in its aim to propel an area artist’s career at a critical stage.

The artistic output of Gallagher, Marsching, Sherman, and Welty indicates that Boston is an effective incubator for contemporary art. Individually and collectively, these artists are consumed with humanistic, timely themes, such as the state of the environment, belief, emotion, and the poetic yet unsentimental examination of daily life. Like many celebrated artists from around the globe, Gallagher, Marsching, Sherman, and Welty used a variety of approaches and forms to make their work, including painting, drawing, sculpture, found objects, and video.

Also reflecting wider trends in contemporary art, these four invited other individuals to play roles in their artistic production, both directly and indirectly. Such participation took many forms and occurred on many levels, from the active involvement of scientists and other professionals in Jane D. Marsching’s Arctic Listening Post to the collective gathering and assembling of countless twist ties and other ephemera from Rachel Perry Welty’s works. Horticulturalists, flower wholesalers, and the American Society of Dowsers play key roles in the work Sheila Gallagher created for the ICA. No less important is the indirect participation of Kelly Sherman’s unknown authors of wish lists posted on the Internet.

The artistic pursuits of these four demonstrated an active, joyful immersion in the beauty and incongruity of the world at the time. Not surprisingly, three of these four artists used the term “wonder” when interviewed about their work. One detects an old-fashioned sense of optimism and derring-do toward their chosen topics. The respective artistic projects of Gallagher, Marsching, Sherman and Welty, resulting from highly personal responses to circumstances at the time, wove narrative and conceptual threads that call attention to global phenomena that touched the lives of countless individuals.