Friday, September 21, 2012

I ♥ ArtPrize

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.


Nina Simon said...

So glad you get to experience it, Sarah. I LOVED it when I went.

Also, I've heard The Museum Group is going this year--it will be interesting to hear what Elaine Heumann Gurian and other museum lions think!

Kevin Buist said...

Nina, I don't know what the Museum Group is, but I feel like I should. Feel free to give them my contact info and I can try to meet up with them when they're here.

Sarah, it was great to meet you. I'm so glad you enjoyed your visit!

DrMatt said...

Many of us in the arts know clearly what Artprize is really about: promoting Grand Rapids.

Rita Petteys said...

Thank you for a terrific article. As a proud Grand Rapidian and avid art lover, I get tired of hearing talking heads and supposed intellectuals slagging the competition because of its democratic nature, as if we little people can't have opinions that matter because our names aren't followed by the initials MFA or some such. What is art if it is not seen? Everyone deserves art, and everyone deserves to have an opinion.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article. I know little about art, but get more education every year with Artprize. You are right, everyone talks about it to everyone.

Richard Kooyman said...

To learn about anything in this world seems to more and more involve understanding what is myth and what is reality. Sarah Kate Baie’s blog does a good job of touching on several myths but I disagree with her conclusions.

For example, who started the myth that the public isn’t allowed to or doesn’t feel comfortable talking about art? This is a myth that ArtPrize loves to foster. Museums, art spaces, galleries work tirelessly ever day to try to get people into their doors to look at and talk about art. Why they often don’t or why some don’t feel comfortable going to an art museum is because of a wide range of reasons. I don’t feel comfortable going to a football game because I don’t know anything about football. That is no ones fault but my own.

What ArtPrize actually is has been fostered by another myth. ArtPrize isn’t open to any artist. You get into ArtPrize just like you get into any other art competition in the world. You have to apply and be juried into the event. Artists have to pay an application fee and be juried by the venues. Some venues have professional curators and some just have people picking what they like.

Another very important myth to ArtPrize is the idea that ArtPrize isn’t about what is good art or what is bad art but rather it is about the conversation about art. Is it really about conversation? Would people turn out in the numbers that they have if there was no prize money for them to award? Would artist even apply if there was no scrum for prize money (Less artists applied this year for ArtPrize than they did last year).
ArtPrize is about a certain type of conversation. A conversation that says that the general public’s personal opinion about art is just as valuable than having knowledge about art. This is a myth, a entrepreneurial idea that brings droves of people into the city to generate economic development off the backs of artists.

Anonymous said...

Very cynical outlook.

Anonymous said...

Matt, it doesn't have to be that black and white. Of course artprize promotes Grand Rapids, but it doesn't have to be only that. Do you learn about history from re enactments as well as from historians?

Anonymous said...

Before ArtPrize started, I knew very little about art. Each year I have learned a little bit more, mostly from the artists themselves in describing their work. I know people have complained about "artists pandering for votes" but we get access to these artists and get to ask them questions - that's a good thing.

Every day during ArtPrize, my children ask if we're going downtown. I wonder what impact this will have on a generation raised with Art as a significant part of their city's culture - I suspect that's a good thing.

If ArtPrize was started solely to promote Grand Rapids - it has been successful. The energy is palpable - it's a good thing.

If this is an economic development on the back of artists, so be it. I'm all in favor of economic development And I know a few artist who participate, and they get more exposure in 2 weeks than they get the rest of the year.

Entire neighborhood revitalization has been driven by this one event (mostly) - look at the Heartside neighborhood and the Avenue for the Arts.

The people of Grand Rapids are thankful for the impact of ArtPrize, and we're not terribly concerned about Matthew Power's opinion.

Kae said...

Thank you for the article; I think you get it. Sure, there's a capitalistic element to the process, but the experience has been really broadening for people who haven't been drawn into the enclaves of art...the museums, the galleries, so on. These places haven't grabbed their attention, but the things that are out on the street, in the coffee shops, in the hotels and bookstores, in the near-abandoned old museum building, in unrented warehouses...these places draw people in. The art is made both by their neighbors and some guy in Iceland; it's amateurish and polished, professional and rookie, kitschy and cool. Yeah, the town makes some money in room rentals and meals and so on, but the artists also gain exposure and experience...and so do the people who wouldn't normally see such a broad array of artwork.

Anonymous said...

And the conversation continues!
Thank you for a great article! I agree with Kae that you get it. There are some who are cynical or maybe they are part of the Art critic set; but it is not only about the money. I am an Artist, and because of ArtPrize, I went to the Grand Rapids Art Museum for the first time last year. I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art this summer, and the St. Louis Art Museum the year before.
I don't have a piece in ArtPrize, but could if I wanted. I would never be able to have Anything in any museum. Grand Rapids would become my venue and the people who take time out of their day to walk everywhere and see it all, would be my audience. I would not win any money in ArtPrize for my art, but that is not why I would enter! I would want to submit my art so I could experience ArtPrize in an even deeper way that I have the past three years! I prefer the visitors to Grand Rapids as my audience. And I am happy to have coffee in a wonderful little shop that is displaying over 30 art pieces! I live in Holland, and my husband and I bring our bikes down to Grand Rapids, and just enjoy the art, enjoy the community and the excitement. I love ArtPrize and I laugh at the crtics who don't get it!!

Anonymous said...

It gets worse every year! Were is the real talent and real art instead some very amateurish looking "art" and craft pieces from grandmothers and layed off men and women who have nothing better to do with there time. I mean really I look at some of the Art Garbage as I call it and think "what was this person thinking, you really think you're gonna win $250k, for this junk" Well another year of bad art for Art Garbage 2012.

Australian Art Sales said...

I think such art prizes are good as they appreciate the artist for eminent work and motivate the emerging artist to continuing doing remarkable work.

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