Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

What’s the verdict on the ArtPrize model?

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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.

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  1. Brett Colley says:

    Hi, Tyler. I think it’s worth noting here (in the interest of forming a more complete picture for the art world assessing ArtPrize from beyond West Michigan) that the work on view at venues such as Site:Lab, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), Kendall College of Art & Design (KCAD) and the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) was not “steered” there by ArtPrize. In fact, much of the art on display at these sites was NOT found through ArtPrize at all. In other words, it doesn’t derive from the ArtPrize call for entries/website, but rather through these venues’ OWN calls, as well as a “reserve” of artists deepened through years of exhibits/contacts, and curators’ personal connections. I know that the Site:Lab curators are pro-active about finding good work all year long, as they see it/know it. The UICA has formed its own pool of artists based upon several calls per year. These sites were largely CURATED before the ArtPrize entry deadline even passed. If one could wave a magic wand at the city, leaving only the entries found through the ArtPrize “match game”, I think the resulting exhibitions would be quite telling. In my opinionArtPrize doesn’t warrant credit for the culture that each of these venues has created for itself and for our city, through years of industrious work and expertise. THE WORK OF CURATORS IS CRITICAL to any large-scale art event seeking critical respect…and since its inception, ArtPrize has largely ignored their role in its own success.

  2. Thank you for your insights about ArtPrize. Kevin Caron, the Phoenix, Arizona-based sculptor for whom I work, was told by two different supporters, both from Michigan about the show.

    Both said, “Your work is far better than most of the work there.” Your article helps me better understand why (Kevin is a professional artist).

    Kevin did participate this year, and we have been pleased with the way the show has been run (at least at the venue he is in) and the excitement surrounding the show.

    So I think the word is getting out to the rest of the art world that ArtPrize isn’t just a neighborhood parade, and it has the potential to be more. I only hope the energy and enthusiasm can keep flowing as it morphs.

  3. […] Tyler Green’s reporting from ArtPrize is excellent and spot-on. [Modern Art Notes] […]

  4. Linda Jablonowski says:

    Wow. I understand that the thought behind the obviously expertised expert. Does the accomplished artist from schools have it all? If they had wanted to exhibit their art as part of the exhibition, they should have. I saw some beautiful student art while I was there. What I liked about artprize was the fact that it is art for the masses and from the masses. Art that took years to make (the pinestraw bear at the Marriot) or an artist that loves VanGogh (the assemblage in the B.O.B parking lot) or the statement makers like the artist that made the black bird from recycled tires, or the statement made by the New Orleans artist who assembled a gorgeous sculpture of a New Orleans musician. At Fountain Street Church the art was incredibly meaningful – Mine was hiding on a wall in the chapel. Positive statements to down in the heart treatments of societies oppression. I think all of us at Fountain Street were excellently exhibited. Their mission is commendable. I hope to have one accepted next year. Not all artists are accepted. Their were artist out there that were and are self-made. They have vision and heart and desire to make a difference. I get upset when pieces are picked out as the best art for museums. What does that mean? Whose the judge? Self made or MFA? Contemporary art is difficult to judge as good or bad. It is the message. I believe that we as a society have gone beyond beautiful to purposeful. When you can combine them,then you have the masterful artpiece. Art talks. Let the masses speak.

  5. Bubba Regina says:

    Tyler? It’s shocking to someone inside the Beltway, I’m sure, but deep dialogue about “big city” ideas like art theory and practice, gender ID and quality have been going on in Grand Rapids for a very long time.

    Kindly do not assume that because it’s the Midwest, no one here can conceive of concepts familiar in the outside world. It’s insulting, and it’s also inaccurate.

  6. Tyler Green says:

    I said that such “themes [are] somewhat more familiar to visitors to Chelsea or Culver City.” There is, without question, more art exploring the themes in question on view in New York and Los Angeles than in Grand Rapids (or Detroit or Denver and so on).

    Also, I don’t need to assume anything about the Midwest. I used to live there.

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