Adam Lerner and I recently visited Grand Rapids on official museum business just as ArtPrize was gearing up for its nineteen-day run. ArtPrize is an art competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that awards an enormous prize, currently $200,000, to the voting public’s choice of “best artwork.” A host of other awards, including a juried prize (new this year), bring the total pot of prize money up to $560,000. ArtPrize is simple, anyone can vote for best art and, for a $50 entry fee, any artist can enter.
In its first year, ArtPrize saw more than 1,200 artists enter and more than 200,000 visitors tour the public exhibition in multiple venues downtown. In 2011, ArtPrize’s third year, it had grown to 320,000 visitors. To put this in perspective, Grand Rapids is a city of 188,000. Now in its fourth year, the field extends to more than 1,500 artists, with artworks in 161 venues, from art museums to coffee shops, all walkable within three miles from ArtPrize’s downtown “Hub.”
The democratic nature of the competition that allows anyone to submit – from the most successful artist to the most amateur tinkerer – makes it easy to dismiss, as seen in a recent skewering of the show by writer Matthew Power in GQ magazine. The world of high art is not democratic – it is a meritocracy at best and a plutocracy at worst. When Power points out that the ArtPrize award is larger than the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize in New York ($100,000) or the Turner Prize in London ($40,000), what he doesn’t say is that those awards are chosen not by the voting public, but by a small jury of curators, critics, and scholars. When Power talks about the "crushing depths to which creative expression could sink in the quest for money and fame," the subtext is clear: What business do the citizens of a little city in Michigan have awarding a big prize to bad art?
The criticism is aimed at an easy target, but it is the wrong one. Dismissing ArtPrize because of the size of the prize or the pedestrian nature of the entries is to miss the point of ArtPrize entirely. Sure, the life-changing sum of $200,000 captures the imagination of the voting public, but it’s not the prize that makes ArtPrize interesting – it’s the public. ArtPrize changes the entire fabric of the city of Grand Rapids. For nineteen days everybody, and I mean everybody, is talking about – and arguing about – and complaining about – art. If it takes a semi-outlandish sum of money to affect large-scale civic dialogue around contemporary art, then by all means, use money to this end. Art is important. But getting people to talk about art is hard. It is hard enough to get a handful of people to talk about art in a museum for one hour. Getting an entire city to talk about art for nineteen days should be next to impossible.
And as such, the quality of the art at ArtPrize is almost beside the point. In fact, featuring a huge body of art that varies wildly in its approach makes the dialogue surrounding it that much more interesting. It gets people talking. Let’s not forget, to complain is to engage in a dialogue. You don’t complain about things you don’t care about.
This is something that the artists Christo and the late Jeanne-Claude, another oft-criticized duo, have taken into account every time they begin a project. For them, their artwork begins not when their vision is realized in a finished product, but when their idea starts to take shape in the minds of the public. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude, debate is not a negative – for them this debate is as integral to the artwork as the art is itself. True dialogue creates a situation where people are passionately talking about – and arguing about – and complaining about – art. This is a good thing.
When I arrived in Grand Rapids, four days before the start of ArtPrize, the city was buzzing with excitement as artists finished their installations and venues got ready for the influx of crowds. Every single time I was in a public space, I overheard someone talking passionately about ArtPrize. Because I was wearing an ArtPrize button, people made a point of seeking me out to tell stories and offer suggestions. In many years of working for art museums, I have never seen this happen.
All this buzz by folks who aren’t “supposed” to be part of art dialogue reminds me of another tidal wave of innovation, one that changed technology. Years ago, just as Apple was beginning its rise from the dead, I overheard four men, all well over sixty, talking about how easy their new Mac laptops were to use. The incongruity could have been a joke. Almost no one was making computers for the over-sixty set – why should they? Computers were purchased primarily by technocrats and businesses – and these men were neither. But Apple changed the game by making it easy for anyone, no matter their age or level of expertise, to use their machines. Apple didn’t laugh at their users for being stupid; Apple gave them tools to make them feel smart.
There is something to learn here. ArtPrize isn’t about awarding money to bad art. ArtPrize is about broadening the arts ecosystem, opening the doors of the art world to a voting public who might not otherwise feel invited to the dialogue about art and ideas. The art world shouldn’t be laughing; it should be listening.
Image: Grand Rapids, festooned for ArtPrize.