The three-member artist collective known as the Baltimore Development Cooperative took home the Sondheim Artscape Prize, a $25,000 award that serves as the mid-Atlantic region's most prestigious visual art recognition. In an award ceremony on Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art-where the Baltimore Development Cooperative (BDC) as well as the five other finalists for the prize are enjoying an airing of their works-Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon presented the award to artists Nicholas Wisniewski, Dane Nester, and Scott Berzofsky.

The piece that won the Sondheim for the trio is ongoing-and not exactly on view at the Sondheim show. "It's our practice that got us the award. Hands down, no question," says Nester. Along with Berzofsky and Wisniewski, Nester spent a week camping in a lo-fi geodesic dome structure assembled in front of the Baltimore Museum of Art deciding what to build to represent their work. Neither the dome out front nor a cardboard cityscape shaped like a clunky robot inside the museum exactly represents the BDC-as the young, hipster Maryland Institute College of Art alumnis fully acknowledge. "This stuff? It's there to make a connection," explains Nester.

Described as "neoliberal urbanism" in introductory remarks during the ceremony, the work by the four-year-old BDC is essentially social activism as art performance. Participation Park, the longest-running project, is an ongoing public artwork located on a vacant lot in east Baltimore, where the artists are developing an urban farm, community kitchen, and other spaces to serve community needs. (The BDC is squatting on the vacant lot.) Wisniewski says that neoliberal urbanism is "a broad, sweeping term that sums up the financialization, privatization of public amenities"-a trend the BDC is committed to opposing.

Public participation is a major component of the group's work, according to the artists. For example, the geodesic structure (called "the Pavilion") is available during the Sondheim exhibit for individuals or groups to reserve for almost any purpose: social planning, performances, meals, you name it.

"That kind of generosity opens art to so many people," says Dorren Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Bolger explained that a group of young women had used the BDC's geodesic tent to finish a mural-sized quilt for a House of Ruth Maryland emergency shelter. (The Web-based calendar showed just one other reservation: for Whartscape, a Wham City music satellite of the Artscape festival.)

"There's a place for art for art's sake," says Bolger, explaining that the BDC were a timely, relevant choice. The group's activist politics distinguished their work from the object-oriented work of the other finalists: photographer Leslie Furlong, installation artist Ryan Hackett, sculptor Jessie Lehson, draughstman and conceptualist Molly Springfield, and painter and filmmaker Karen Yasinsky.

Named for Baltimore civic leader Walter Sondheim and his wife Janet, the Sondheim prize has gone to a Baltimore artist each year in its four-year history. (In fact, the winners have all been grads from the Maryland Institute College of Art.) However, it is open to a broader pool of mid-Atlantic applicants. Sondheim coordinator Gary Kachadourian assures that it's not a Baltimore-exclusive award by design. As in previous years, jurors for this year's panel -- artist Ellen Harvey, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, and Whitney Museum of American Art photography curator Elisabeth Sussman -- were asked to evaluate each artist individually and were not directed with any specific criteria for judging the work.

"Last year, [the BDC] didn't make it through the first round," says Kachadourian. "We're asking [the jurors] to judge the artists on the work." Nevertheless, the award proved to be a red-letter day for Baltimore. During the ceremony, Mayor Dixon also announced that the National Endowment for the Arts had named Baltimore County to receive $250,000 in grant funding - and that the City of Baltimore would match that amount dollar for dollar through Creative Baltimore Fund grants.

The BDC artists do not yet have detailed plans for their $25,000 prize-they'll each take a stipend, the group will pay off some debts, and one way or another, all the rest of the money will make its way back into Baltimore communities. To this end, they do have one specific avenue in mind: "Definitely there" -- at the group's Participation Park site, Nester explains -- "we want to build an adventure playground."

["Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2009 Finalists" on view June 20-August 16, 2009. Baltimore Development Cooperative, installation view of Participation Park, 2009. Courtesy of the Artists. Photography by Mitro Hood.]