Rirkrit Tiravanija has been awarded the Smithsonian American Art Museum's $25,000 Lucelia Artist Award, the museum announced Friday.

The New York-based artist specializes in extended performances that can involve camping out in an exhibition space and cooking free meals for museum visitors. He is a favorite of many devotees of contemporary art, but his reputation has yet to spread beyond those circles -- something the Lucelia award is meant to help correct.

The prize, established by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2001, is awarded annually to "an American artist under the age of 50 who has produced a significant body of artwork that demonstrates exceptional creativity." It is one of the larger prizes in contemporary art, but has not achieved the profile of awards such as the annual Turner Prize, given to a British artist by the Tate Gallery in London, or the international Hugo Boss Award, awarded every other year by New York's Guggenheim Museum.

The award, meant to signal the Smithsonian museum's "commitment to contemporary art and artists," is funded by New York's Lucelia Foundation, which focuses on the American visual arts of the past two centuries. Jurors for this year's prize included leading art photographer Cindy Sherman and Robert Storr, until recently a senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and now a professor at the prestigious Institute of Fine Arts of New York University.

Tiravanija, born in Argentina in 1961 to Thai parents, was raised in Thailand, Ethiopia and Canada. He divides his time among Bangkok, Berlin and New York, where he is an associate professor at Columbia University. This multicultural, international profile has made him a perfect fit for the globalizing, globe-trotting tendencies of today's art world. His work has been shown in biennial art exhibitions in Venice, Liverpool and Berlin, as well as in such major international surveys as Pittsburgh's Carnegie International. He is curating one component of this year's 50th Venice Biennale.

Like many other leaders in contemporary art, Tiravanija has tried to expand the definition of what deserves museum space. Rather than making traditional, marketable art objects, Tiravanija tries to expose his audience to novel social experiences and interactions. Sometimes he outfits an art gallery with makeshift sleeping and cooking facilities and a space for visitors to dine in. Once he took his cooking on the road, traveling to a prestigious Madrid exhibition by bicycle and feeding people along the way. By serving up his trademark Thai curries in museums around the world, for visitors from all places and all walks of life -- he's been known to draw the hungry as well as the well heeled -- he hopes to break down barriers between cultures, and between art and daily life.

As the Lucelia jury put it, Tiravanija has an unusually "welcoming, generous and optimistic approach to art."