The People Speak: A Report from the 2016 ArtPrize
Dispatch from Grand Rapids.
Landing at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, in Grand Rapids MI, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick anything that distinguishes it from other mid-sized cities almost anywhere along the Rust Belt. The drive-thru airport paired with the generic flatness of its highways, lined with roadside motels, strip malls, and chain restaurants, evoke an obligatory trip home to see the family for the holidays or a funeral, not a singular cultural event. For two and a half weeks every September, this Western Michigan city of fewer than 200,000 people swells at least twice, maybe three times over with guests, mainly from a 300-mile radius, who are there to attend and participate in ArtPrize, an annual arts festival and competition now in its eighth year. It is a fascinating anomaly because it is neither art fair nor biennial. It would perhaps also go wholly unnoticed beyond local news outlets were it not promoting the largest single cash award, worldwide, given exclusively to artists. Only the Dorothy and Lilian Gish Prize ($300,000) and the MacArthur Fellowship are larger ($625,000 over a five-year period), but they nominate and award many eligible creative and technical fields beyond visual artists.
Launched in 2009, ArtPrize was founded by Rick DeVos, the 34-year-old scion of the ultra-conservative DeVos clan, the Alticor/Amway founding family, whose name dots several buildings in downtown Grand Rapids. Some critics are uncomfortable that the founding sponsor of the prize, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, has vigorously supported charter schools, free market think tanks like the Cato Institute, as well as anti-union, pro-Christian, anti-gay, and anti-same-sex marriage initiatives. To overlook the positive impact of ArtPrize while speculating on a sinister, ulterior motive ascribed to the younger DeVos’s efforts, however, leads to its own closed-minded approach. In the art world, neither the conservatism of an Emirati or Qatari sheikh(a), nor the questionable ethics of any Russian oligarch get so closely examined, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art certainly didn’t refuse any of that Koch money. Without any evidence of wrongdoing, or becoming an apologist for their political activism, let’s sidestep this area of scrutiny. It’s a philosophy of taking the bad with the good that will come to feel pervasive there.
For its efforts, the city receives an enviable amount of cultural tourism that, according to the Anderson Economic Group, a Michigan and Illinois-based consulting firm, resulted in an estimated $22.2 million in economic impact in 2013. Yet, this is not a typical art-going or art-buying public either selecting the work, volunteering, or attending the event. Rapidians see themselves as part of a cultural dialog marked, for better or worse, by the 1969 installation of Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse in front of their city hall through the efforts of one indefatigable citizen, one of the first National Endowment for the Arts public art grants, and the help of then-Congressman Gerald R. Ford. Their civic pride led to the three-day Festival Grand Rapids in 1970 as a celebration of the landmark. ArtPrize has outdone, if not supplanted the Festival, along with other smaller art events, but it “wouldn’t work in another town without that volunteer spirit,” according to William Lamson, a New York artist participating in this year’s competition for the first time.
Since the inaugural edition, award figures have evolved into two parallel and eye-watering Grand Prizes of $200,000. One is selected by an invited three-person jury of experts that relies on the 20-project shortlist created by jurors of four subcategories: Two-dimensional, Three-dimensional, Installation, and Time-based art. The other award is determined by a public voting system, which began with the prize’s founding and which bills itself as “radically open.” Anyone 13 and over (lowered from 16 this year) can register to vote for their top choices in the four categories, either online or through an official app. Often referred to derisively, or at best quizzically, as the “American Idol of art,” ArtPrize engages the art world intelligentsia only minimally, in order to filter its presentation. It is primarily located within a three-square-mile perimeter downtown, where this year, 170 venues — as varied as City Hall, hotels, police stations, churches, banks, hospitals, restaurants, and cafes — have paired themselves with the 1,453 artists who submitted work in the lead up to the event. As an artist, the only eligibility requirements are that you must be at least 18 years old, and pay the $50 fee to enter, so there’s plenty of bad art to go around. This means that the populist and the professional sit uncomfortably side-by-side, with Grand Rapids-based artist Mandy Cano Villalobos noting, via email, that, “It’s like two separate ArtPrizes running concurrently.” It could easily devolve into an arts and crafts festival, if the local museums and college galleries weren’t also participating. The increased attendance must be welcome for them, but at the same time, a multitude of people trudging single-file through the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and elsewhere, made it difficult for a viewer to appreciate the better exhibitions. For example, three large-scale tapestries by Kiki Smith occupying a space near the second floor exit were impossible to reach and look at closely without battling against the flow of traffic. Dario Robleto’s work, Survival Does Not Lie in the Heavens, shortlisted by Tina Rivers Ryan in the Two-Dimensional category, is a work already so subdued that it felt stifled by the crowd amassed to watch the popular video around the corner, Higher Ground by Hillerbrand+Magsamen, which made it to the public’s Final 20 in the Time-based category. At another venue, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Eric Dickson’s interactive sound piece, Wars and Rumors of Wars, shortlisted by Deana Haggag, hanging overhead in the gift shop, is missed easily amidst the quickly exiting throngs.
Although the voting process is open, only 10-15% of each year’s almost half-million visitors are engaged enough to decide the outcome, meaning an average of 42,000 registered voters lodge the entirety of the approximately 400,000 votes per year. This year, 37,433 visitors submitted the 380,119 votes (or 9.8%). It’s remarkable that Ditch Lily Drawing by Grand Rapids-based artist and composer Nathan Lareau at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park even made it onto the public’s Final 20. The rhythmic, fragile wall drawing, all twigs and intersecting shadows, communicates a common-sense, yet elegant lesson that the hidden beauty of the overlooked can be unlocked by the right hands. Located at the venue furthest from downtown, though, it was likely at a disadvantage in trying to garner the return visitors and votes to go further. It doesn’t exactly overturn the idea that a minority of people decides for the rest what is good art. In the past, the Public Vote has favored works with some combination of landscape, spectacle, virtuosity, and self-affirmation, rewarding artists who, if they weren’t outright pandering, were definitely easy to digest. Sweeping categories of ideas that have been awarded over the years include the Lake, the Forest, the Sea, Elephants, and Religion, which all seem to imply a collective desire to probe an expanse, but also indicate a concrete literalism, a failure to abstract, and a lack of nuance. It’s a reminder that when the temporary art carnival leaves town, there should be long-term efforts to engage and educate a greater portion of the public. Meijer Gardens, which is open to the public year-round (save three holidays), is a great site for that. With around 75 sculptures on display from a world-class collection of 200, it’s one of the things that truly sets Grand Rapids apart from all of those other midsized cities. The other is ArtPrize, and it’s clear that it gets all of the attention.
As an organization, ArtPrize still is evolving from its original free-for-all style, with Kevin Buist, Director of Exhibitions, working more directly in the development of new programming. These initiatives include the second year of the Fellowship for Emerging Curators, the first year of Featured Public Projects, and the third year of Seed Grants for artists, the latter two projects underwritten in part or entirely by the Frey Foundation, whose Chairman, David Frey, said in a speech that the jury “provides balance that the public program needs.” Cano Villalobos added that over the last eight years, ArtPrize has “beefed up their programming, providing funds for curatorial projects and artists, educational activities, lectures and panel discussions, renowned jurors, [which] I think that has greatly helped [it] gain credibility with the Grand Rapids art community, and effectively engage the non-art community.” As ArtPrize moves closer to its 10th anniversary, the organizers should be unafraid of these incremental changes, which have had an immediate impact. Notably, the four curatorial projects supported by ArtPrize this year garnered five nominations on the jurors’ shortlist, and one of them, This Space is not Abandoned by the Cultura Collective at 912 Grandville Avenue, led by Steffanie Rosalez, went on to win the Installation Juried Award and half of the Outstanding Venue Award. The other Juried Awards, each worth $12,500, were announced the evening of October 7 and include Isaac Aoki’s les bêtes (Two-Dimensional), the only locally based artist, an amateur photographer and also ballet dancer at the Grand Rapids Ballet; William Lamson’s Excavations (Three-Dimensional); and Eric Souther’s Search Engine Vision “ISIS” (Time-based). The Public Vote awards went to Pettit Smith’s The Butterfly Effect (Installation); Joao Paulo Goncalves’s Portraits of Light and Shadow (Two-Dimensional); James Mellick’s Wounded Warrior Dogs (Three-Dimensional); and designer Maarten Baas’s Sweeper’s Clock (Time-based), the only piece to feature on both lists of finalists.
The first time the Grand Prizes reached parity, in 2014, the result surprised in that the Juried and Public Vote reflected an enlightened alignment of opinion about Intersections (2013) by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha. In 2015, the jurors opted for the performative work of Kate Gilmore, and the public chose a photorealistic quilt by a group that included a previous Grand Prize winner — a stark divergence in medium and content. This year, another performance work and craftwork were chosen, but perhaps there’s a convergence of sorts to be found. The three jurors — Michelle Grabner, artist and professor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Paul Ha, Director at the MIT List Visual Arts Center; and Eric Shiner, Senior Vice President at Sotheby’s — selected North Carolina artist Stacey Kirby’s Bureau of Personal Belonging, three participatory performances grouped in an installation made to look like a “60’s era bureaucratic office space.” It asked viewers to validate their gender and sexual identity, challenging laws and lawmakers that would fix those definitions. The Public Vote chose Ohio craftsman James Mellick’s Wounded Warrior Dogs, a series of seven wooden dog sculptures that exhibit the kinds of injuries soldiers return home with from war, which asks for consideration and support for veterans. You could say both projects are working with identity, aiming to raise awareness of urgent issues. Both go further and address the politics of bodies, pointing to the government’s failure to act or its willingness to overreact. Above all, they each engage in their own kind of political activism, which typically wouldn’t fall on the same side of the political spectrum. Yet somehow, they found a place and platform from which to explore them, and it seems that only at ArtPrize could they exist, however comfortably, side-by-side.