Wednesday, September 18th was the opening of ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, MI, and Jeff and I were there. ArtPrize is a crazy carnival of a competition, with art spilling out of buildings into streets and parking lots, spanning into and across the river downtown, and covering the walls of indoor venues across the city. Its website touts it as a “radically open” competition with the biggest prize in the world: $200,000 for the most crowd-pleasing piece of art. Anyone can enter the competition as long as they can find a venue to host their work within a predetermined three-mile block of city space. There is art in every medium and a large range of skill levels are represented. The event is overwhelming but exciting.
Jeff and I visited as spectators only this year. Jeff has been hearing from people for a while now that he should consider entering ArtPrize, and we wanted to see what it was all about. Even though I had done some research on the event beforehand, I still had no idea what to expect. Even expert reviewers of the event aren’t entirely sure what to make of it and tend to go to extremes in their coverage. Here’s an excerpt from a piece written about ArtPrize and its founder, Rick Devos, by Matthew Power for GQ:
“Critics have derided ArtPrize as a naked bid to buy cultural cachet in a flyover-country backwater, and fans have hailed it as radically open, a populist wresting of aesthetic judgment from the snobbery of elites in New York and Los Angeles. The New York Times mocked it as “Art Idol.” The critic Jerry Saltz called it “terrifying and thrilling” and wondered what effect such a model would have on the traditional bastions of art-world power.”
(For those interested in reading about artistic hubris, the economic benefits of art in a “backwater” Midwestern city, bad politics, the uber-rich, and conspiracy theories, Mr. Power’s article is a must-read. Click the link on his name above the quote.)
Now, having visited, I can better understand the terror (slightly mitigated by competitive excitement) that an event like ArtPrize must bring to art critics and serious artists alike. The competition itself is a big commitment- it runs from the 18th of September until the 6th of October. An artist like Jeff, with pieces that move and require electricity, would probably want to stick around for the whole competition to ensure nothing goes wrong with his work. But beyond even that is the terror that comes with having a jury of the public. People are unpredictable! What kind of decisions will they make? Will they be blown away by the giant dragon sculpture on the sidewalk outside the bank, or will they venture into one of Grand Rapid’s two participating museums to see the temporary installations there? Will they pay attention to skill level, time commitment, and uniqueness? Will they just vote for their friends? There are a lot of local artists, after all. Does asking these questions make ME one of the snobs fans of ArtPrize love to hate?! I still don’t know what to think!
Historically, Jeff fares well with the public. He’s won several popular choice awards at shows around the country. Most importantly, however, I think Jeff strikes the kind of balance with his work that lots of ArtPrize goers are probably looking for: it’s fun to look at, it’s different, and it took skill to create. He presents his work unpretentiously and gives the viewer a chance to make of it what they will. It’s just good art.
We saw one piece of somewhat comparable kinetic sculpture that, by 7 pm on opening day, had already broken and was flanked by a very hoity toity artist statement (the bane of my existence). We decided that next year, whether we understand it or not, ArtPrize could be worth the effort. Maybe Jeff will see you there!