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May 4, 2016
ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Mich. turns city upside-down

After months of anticipation and preparation, ArtPrize, a citywide art competition in Grand Rapids, Mich., opened its polls on Sept. 23. The colossal undertaking includes 1,262 pieces of art displayed in 159 venues around the city, including restaurants, storefronts, vacant warehouses, parking lots, pedestrian bridges and parks.  

Unlike a juried art competition, ArtPrize - a new endeavor for the city - is entirely democratic. Entry was open to all, provided an artist could secure a Grand Rapids venue, and the winners (who receive generous cash awards) will be chosen by popular crowd vote. And, yeah, ArtPrize has drawn plenty of comparisons to American Idol.

The competition drew entries from around the world, with the heaviest concentration naturally coming from Michigan. I've been casually monitoring the contest's progression since its announcement early this spring and a cursory glance reveals that quite a few Florida residents are participating in the competition, including Liesa Robarge of Big Pine Key, Robert Lebron of Viera and Eric Elliot of Naples, among others.

Full disclosure: I first heard about ArtPrize because I lived in Grand Rapids for six years before moving to South Florida this past January. The project interests me, in part, because it has utterly transformed and overtaken my former hometown, but primarily because it has started a massive conversation about art.

It's also worth noting - in light of Kelli Bodle's recent Perspectives entry about the decline in mainstream and traditional resources for arts journalism - that ArtPrize and art have consistently made headlines in West Michigan in the months leading up to the implementation of this project. Does this coverage focus more on the "hype," than scholarly critique? Sure. But how else would a (mostly) positive story about the state-of-the-arts get such press coverage?

Without seeing the execution of ArtPrize in person, it's difficult, if not impossible, to formulate a fair and accurate judgment of the success of the event or of the overall quality of the entries. Regardless, one can certainly contemplate the larger, more universal questions raised by the project, such as: 

What qualifies someone to be an artist? What constitutes art?

Is the general public capable of choosing "the best" entry from the hundreds of options?

Does such a contest - in which voters can cast votes via Twitter and the like - cheapen art, or does it serve to heighten the importance of art in everyday life?

I can see why the event has attracted some naysayers, but it's hard to look down on something that has the power to motivate lots of people to create, look at, experience, talk about and think about art. Granted, the quality of the individual entries might be all over the place, but would people's time be better spent at home, with the latest episode of Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami instead of exploring a city and viewing lots of art?    

What are your thoughts on an open art competition of this nature? Please feel free to leave comments below. We're especially curious to hear what artists have to say about ArtPrize and the notion of voting for the "best" piece.

More information:

Watch a video of last minute preparations for ArtPrize

An easily digested, firsthand synopsis of the event

Scenes from ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Mich. Both images belong to Plounsbury. Use of these photographs does not, in any way, constitute an endoresment by the artist, who retains full rights of these images.

Posted by: Tricia Woolfenden @ Thursday, September 24, 2009 2:15:25 pm 
I found another, well-known art blogger writing about the Art Prize (a little late, but better than never - on my part). Judith H. Dobrzynski is an independent journalist who has written and edited for the New York Times.
Posted by: Kelli Bodle @ November 3, 2009 9:34:00 am

An event like this has raised more questions than answers. Maybe that is a good thing because in so doing it has raised awareness. But why does the event have to be a competition? Will no one enter unless there is prize money involved? Art in it's truest form is self expression. Maybe that's all it is. So why can't this be an event that celebrates self expression? Is art only gilded frames? Is art only found in multi-million dollar museums operated by the extremely wealthy? Can only the highly educated appreciate art? This event has answered these questions. It will have some logistical areas of concern but no longer will the rich sequester their prizes in stuffy halls. Art has come to the masses by the masses. It is as it should be.
Posted by: Dan Boot @ September 26, 2009 10:56:00 pm

Not really an art critic or anything, but I do agree with you Tricia that we should just look at the big picture. If it promotes art appreciation...cultural involvement...fantastic! I believe people will take more than just a cursory glance at the works if they are invited to vote.
Posted by: Yvonne Wilson @ September 26, 2009 9:43:00 am

It's certainly easy to get cynical about cultural events in Grand Rapids, or what passes for them, as they all too frequently become excuses for the city's monied interests (you know their names in Florida too...think "Orlando Magic") to gather in front of cameras and shake each other's hands. That said, the philosophical implications of ArtPrize are too juicy to be written off per usual. What's art? What's *good* art? In an age of unlimited connectivity, who gets to keep the gate? Does money corrupt the creative process? Can an event of this nature produce anything of true merit, or is art for prize money handed out via popular vote by definition an exercise in vulgarity? Right now, these conversations are happening in Grand Rapids, and they're coming from the ground up, which to me is astonishing.

For haters and proponents alike, there is much meat on which to chew. I go back and forth between the two viewpoints and generally find myself in the middle, but leaning toward "yay". On the one hand, you can guess where an outsider might read a "Breakfast of Champions" element into it -- like, look at the provincial Midwestern rubes and their little art festival. Likewise, the quantity/quality ratio is roughly what you'd get from an open-admission event in any creative medium, meaning junk > substance, by a vast margin (in my estimation, anyway). But on the other hand, a city I love has blossomed in a completely unexpected way. I am engaging with art when otherwise I wouldn't be, as are thousands of others across all demographics, and right now there is something where otherwise there would be nothing. Good enough for me. The yays have it.
Posted by: Raoul Duke @ September 25, 2009 3:00:00 pm

There are couples, families, seniors and entire busloads of people walking around just to look at art. The city is alive with activity and people from the 'burbs can't resist coming downtown. Once pre-registered (online) and verified (in person) you can vote up or down on all the pieces. To see all the art is a daunting task but it's like an all-you-can-see art buffet!
Posted by: Bill Vits @ September 25, 2009 12:20:00 pm

I don't really think that Art Prize is attempting to be considered a scholarly review of art, so it shouldn't be judged negatively as such. People don't generally go to Art Fairs and start mounting critiques of seashell sculptures. I think that we should all take it for what it is, which is one hot ticket for Grand Rapids as a city and another outlet for artists to show their work as a whole. The only reservation that I have so far is the issue of "real estate" or where one's art is being shown. Artists from outside of Grand Rapids are at a disadvantage, choosing locales for their creations without really understanding the layout of the city or where the popular places are, etc. Nobody likes to be hung in the back room of the galleries and even less so if there is a competition at hand.
Posted by: Kelli Bodle @ September 25, 2009 10:52:00 am

Thanks for the comment, Robin. I ran across an insider look at ArtPrize, written by a writer for Art21. Read it here:
Posted by: Tricia Woolfenden @ September 25, 2009 10:51:00 am

I understand that a simple like or dislike vote from average citizens could warrant questions regarding the impact of a project like this. What is art and who produces art? Is a balloon recreation of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" art? I vote yes!

The fact that this competition has brought art to everyone - giving people who might not otherwise even think twice about where the sculpture in their local park came from, what kind of work went into the original painting of the art print that they have framed in their living room - and allowed them to feel part of it and offer a glimpse into the art process; which they may not otherwise ever even considered.

It is also bringing the community in Grand Rapids and surrounding areas, together. One of the artist's work went up in flames while he was welding part of it together. It is a tree made out of leaves that were cut out of recycled plastic bottles. People with the art prize project and numerous everyday citizens sent a huge flood of support for the artist and his project. People showed up and volunteered hours of their time, some even overnight, to help cut out and paint the leaves that were burnt so the entry could be completed.

Sure, you can compare it to American Idol. I can vote in elections. I can vote for my favorite contestant(s) on any number of TV competitions. Why shouldn't I be allowed to vote on what art I like?
Posted by: Robin S. @ September 24, 2009 11:07:00 pm

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