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Behind the Curtain: What’s in a James W. Ray Award

Megan Gallagher

Content Contributor

Donald Byrd (2016 JWR Distinguished Artist Award), The Beast, Spectrum Studio Theater, 2011. Gabriel Bienczycki.


Since 2014, the James W. Ray awards have allowed Artist Trust and the Frye Art Museum to recognize and support exceptional Washington state artists through funding, career assistance, and opportunities to exhibit their work. Funding for the awards comes from a five-year $1.1 million grant from the Raynier Institute and Foundation. Each year’s recipients receive a total of $80,000 in financial support and the opportunity to create an exhibition for the Frye Art Museum, making these the largest and highest-profile awards Artist Trust oversees.

Each year, there are three James W. Ray awards available for artists: one Distinguished Artist award ($50,000) and two Venture Project awards ($15,000). The Distinguished Artist awards are designed to advance the work of artists who have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to their field. Vocalist Jessika Kenney (2014), writer David Shields (2015), and choreographer Donald Byrd (2016) are all past recipients of the award. In addition to financial support, Distinguished Artist award winners also receive personalized assistance from Artist Trust’s Artist Support Program.

The Venture Project awards help emerging and established artists whose work demonstrates artistic excellence and originality complete new projects. Past awards have gone to Juventino Aranda (2016), Quenton Baker (2016), Alison (Bremner) Marks (2015), Storme Webber (2015), Cris Bruch (2014), and Amy O’Neal (2014).


Opportunities of this magnitude are rare in Washington, and to ensure nominees’ work matches the level of the award, Artist Trust uses a nomination process. Eight months before the winners are announced, Artist Trust selects ten nominators representing the literary, visual, media and performing arts, as well as traditional or interdisciplinary arts. Nominators can be artists, arts administrators, or other arts stakeholders. They are selected based on their depth of knowledge and expertise in the arts, racial equity, diversity of backgrounds and statewide representation, and make five artist nominations based on the award guidelines, racial equity and statewide representation.

Once selected, nominees have about two months to prepare and submit their application. For the Distinguished Artist awards, applications consist of an artist statement, resume, biography, work samples, and a statement about how the award will impact their career. Venture Project award applications include a biography, resume, work samples, project proposal and budget, and impact statement. Artist Trust supports nominees throughout the application process through Office Hours, webinars and an open-door policy. Nominees also have the opportunity to receive preliminary feedback on their applications up to one month before the deadline.

While the nominees are working on their applications, Artist Trust assembles an interdisciplinary panel to decide the award recipients. The panel consists of representatives from each discipline, and participants are selected for their expertise. Applications are judged based on the quality of the work samples, the impact the award would have on the artists’ careers and, in the case of the Venture Project awards, the feasibilityand uniqueness of the project. The names of the awardees are then sent to Artist Trust’s Board of Directors for final approval. (More on Artist Trust’s grant panels here.) 


Venture Project

Alison (Bremner) Marks (2015) – Carving and painting 10’ Totem Pole to honor her grandfather
Storme Webber (2015) – Accessing archival records for Casino: A Palimpsest
Quenton Baker (2016) – Ballast (Poems) 
Juventino Aranda (2016) – Bronze-casting enlarged replicas of “low-brow” picture frames
Amy O’Neal (2014) – Evening-length dance performance at On the Boards, documentary
Chris Bruch (2014) – Great Plains Project exploring family history through sculpture

Distinguished Artist

Jessika Kenney (2014) – Financial planning
David Shields (2015) – Estate Planning
Donald Byrd (2016) – Archiving

2015 James W. Ray Venture Projects awardee Storme Webber’s exhibition Casino: A Palimpsest is on view at the Frye Art Museum until October 29, 2017. Click here to learn more about Casino.

Megan Gallagher is a writer from Redmond, Washington. She’s obsessed with libraries, art and radio, and aspires toward a future career in nonprofit communications and/or arts administration.