As I noted here last week, ArtPrize hired me to be the ‘2-D’ juror for this year’s event, the fourth since ArtPrize started. When I visited Grand Rapids, Mich., I was unsure of what I was in for, but I was eager to see how the thing worked, if this was a new model worth copying. After all, I’ve long been suspicious of the self-importance of the Xennial, and I’m even more suspicious of the immediate institutionalization of the sometimes mediocre work it engenders. Once upon a time I was intrigued by the heightened democracy of ‘early Miami,’ when artists were more engaged with the multiple fairs than they are now that Miami has become dealerpalooza.
Therefore, when it comes to exhibiting art of the present, ArtPrize offers something different: Provide an urban backdrop, let anyone show. (Organizers say that 1,517 artists and craftspeople are showing at 161 venues this year.) Invite some distinguished personages (plus me) to give away some juried awards and also let people vote on what they like best. The ArtPrize model isn’t perfect — more on that in a minute — but there’s plenty here from which the art world could and should learn.
First, what works: The potential audience buys in, big time. Last weekend I spent three days in downtown Grand Rapids. On Saturday and Sunday tens of thousands of people turned out to look at the art. This was not MoMA, where thousands of tourists from Stockholm, Paris and Barcelona turned out to check-off a tourist attraction from their list, this was tens of thousands Michiganders coming out to look at art in their backyard. If you love art and you don’t find that a little bit awesome, you’re lacking a soul.
Another success is the way ArtPrize installs art: First, the organizers rejected the convention-center oriented, fair-style model that presents art Ikea-style. Instead ArtPrize animated Grand Rapids’ striking downtown (hello HopCat, Madcap!) by installing art throughout the city’s core, a decision that encouraged the community to congregate in and to explore its traditional center.
There’s only one thing keeping ArtPrize from being copied more widely: The quality of the art on view. The overwhelming majority of the work on view at ArtPrize is interested in a neighborhood-level discourse. I’d suggest that there’s a limit to the number of times a community will turn out to see dragons made of bottle caps or paintings of bunnies. For ArtPrize to retain its audience, for ArtPrize to grow as both an event and for it to fully emerge as a national model that inspires others, it must find ways to attract and exhibit more artists who are doing meaningful work.
To ArtPrize’s credit, they’ve made some first steps in that direction: The best work was clearly ’steered’ toward the most significant venues, such as the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and the Kendall College of Art and Design. [Update: Please read Brett Colley's comment below. He's right; I did not mean to suggest that ArtPrize itself was organizing these shows.] Visitors seemed to understand this: When I visited, each of those venues had lines or waits to get in.
Even better: The best venue was called Site:Lab, a take0ver of the former Grand Rapids Public Museum that was organized and curated by Paul Amenta. Site:Lab wasn’t just good for Grand Rapids, it was really good for anywhere. Amenta told me that 8,000 people visited Site:Lab the weekend I was there. Consider that (along with the lines at GRAM and other major venues) as an indication that many Michiganders actively sought out the best art: The Site:Lab venue was slightly removed from the downtown core, requiring a bit of a hike away from much of the rest of the art, restaurants and bars. Consider Site:Lab’s attendance in this context: If one percent of metro New Yorkers visited the Met on a weekend, the Met would have to find room for 180,000 people.
ArtPrize organizers would do well to take heed of the crowds at GRAM, Site:Lab and the other sites that featured the best art: Grand Rapids is ready for art more intellectually engaging than paintings of cute animals nibbling on colorful autumn leaves. ArtPrize could — should — investigate ways to bring in independent curators from Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. They should give them space, a budget and ask them to bring artists with them. ArtPrize should consider offering space to local art schools such as Kendall, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cranbrook and Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies. ArtPrize could build partnerships with other institutions in other cities in an effort to help expand the audience for artists who live in Michigan. Yes, it’s certainly fine for ArtPrize to continue its open-submission policy, but that isn’t enough to sustain the event going forward. Judging from what I saw, much of the audience wants more.
Finally, a note on the worth of the enterprise: One of the best venues was Fountain Street Church, a nominally non-denominational church led by a Unitarian Universalist minister. FSC presented a tight little show organized around the idea of difference. Two of my shortlisted works were at FSC, including Disabilities and Sexuality by Robert Coombs (detail above right), which examined the intersection of disability and sexuality, and Identity Process: Kings & Queens (detail at left), Lora Robertson’s thoughtful meditation on gender identity and religion.
These are themes somewhat more familiar to visitors to Chelsea or Culver City, but young people in Grand Rapids don’t have access to the same visual investigations. Because of ArtPrize, FSC, Coombs and Robertson, I suspect that more than a few Grand Rapidians are thinking things they’d never considered before about people with disabilities or about gender and the extent to which it is a construct or a choice. Best of all, I’d bet that some young people — twenty or two hundred or heck, probably a lot more — will see what Robertson and Coombs made, will see that it was not just hung with respect but that it was received with thoughtfulness in their hometown. I bet they’ll think about the work — and its reception — in terms of their own experiences and their own consideration of identity and will feel both engaged and challenged. Art’s potential isn’t realized by paintings of Lindsay Lohan made so that some horny old rich guys will part with their cash, it’s realized by artists who have something more substantial to say.
So is ArtPrize occasionally too full of fauna fabricated out of pine straw? Sure. But to focus on that at the expense of all else misses what should be the point: ArtPrize provides a construct that, at its best, can help connect western Michigan with the world beyond. That’s why it’s a valuable thing, and that’s why the organizers should keep working to more fully realize the potential of the event.