Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize Is a Grand Experiment

Grand Rapids, a city of less than 200,000 people in western Michigan, isn’t quite ready to be considered one of the Midwest’s great art centers; Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit’s art museums are not yet in danger of being eclipsed by Grand Rapids. But wit

click to enlarge Philip Lynch's Tall Buddha
Philip Lynch's Tall Buddha

Grand Rapids, a city of less than 200,000 people in western Michigan, isn’t quite ready to be considered one of the Midwest’s great art centers; Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit’s art museums are not yet in danger of being eclipsed by Grand Rapids. 

But with its annual ArtPrize — a festival-like art exhibition and competition that occurs in late September and early October — it has come up with a citywide visual-arts event like no other in the way it’s captured the public imagination. And in balancing popular demand with critical judgment, it is trying hard to broaden interest in contemporary art without dumbing down the quality in order to play to crowd expectations.

Touring it this year — or at least as much as I could see considering there were 1,524 entries — I found that while there indeed was kitsch, some of it cringe-worthy, there also was abundant high-quality work. Overall, the event seemed democratic and fun.

ArtPrize, which is promoted as a “radically open, independently organized international art competition,” began in 2009 as a “social experiment” to rally a city — an entire region — around visual art. And also to give Grand Rapids a signature event that transcended regionalism. It was the creation of Richard DeVos, a local billionaire who co-founded Amway. 

The public can vote, via the Internet and apps, for prizewinners and the top vote-getter receives $200,000. Within the ArtPrize District, anyone whose property has public access — from an auto body shop in a gritty industrial strip to downtown’s prestigious Grand Rapids Art Museum — is free to select artists to display work. This year, there were 169 venues — including outdoor sites like parks and plazas. Artists and venues connect via the website — ArtPrize does not curate entries. 

I didn’t get a chance to see the grand prize winner, Michigan artist Ann Loveless’ quilt, in four individual panels, depicting the Lake Michigan shoreline at sunset. Looking at pictures of it, it’s not my thing but I can see how the public would be impressed by the quality, color and accuracy of detail. 

Besides, it has a local angle — one worth 446,850 votes. I much preferred a grand prize finalist, Nick Jakubiak’s six-foot panda made from recycled tires (“Tired Pandas”) for being sweet and also furthering green consciousness. It finished 10th and he received $5,000 — $360,000 is awarded in total to the 10 finalists of the public vote. It was in a crowd-pleasing outdoor area that also included Philip Lynch’s towering “Tall Buddha” digital collage.

Because the public, let’s face it, is probably going to vote for the “known known” (in Donald Rumsfeld’s famously inelegant phrasing) before favoring work that really confounds their expectations, ArtPrize also set up a juried competition that hands out $200,000. The top winner gets $100,000; five others get $20,000. One of the jurors this year was Alice Gray Stites, director of art programming for 21c Museum Hotels.

I arrived in vibrant downtown Grand Rapids early on a Saturday evening and, trying to get to the hotel, found myself in a traffic jam. It was impossible to make a right turn — so many pedestrians were crossing the streets that there was no break. Thinking I’d driven in during a fireworks event or something, I asked a police officer what was happening. “It’s ArtPrize,” she said. 

Sunday morning, I went out to that funky auto body shop, where the colorful duct-tape mural by a Cincinnatian, assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture Art and Planning Joseph Girandola (whose recent DAAP show I reviewed in March), was affixed to the building façade. Called “Amore mio … ti manco?” and referencing Star Wars and the “Pietà,” it made the jury’s shortlist but was not a winner. 

It was instructive to compare the top public winner with the jury’s top selection, Barcelona artist Carlos Bunga’s site-specific 

“architectural intervention” called “Ecosystem.” He worked in a venue called SiTE:LAB, the old and otherwise unused Grand Rapids Public Museum that seems to be where ArtPrize’s toughest, most thought-provoking contemporary art is displayed.

In the gallery that still holds the old wildlife dioramas of decades past, Bunga used inexpensive materials — cardboard and paint — to highlight their inherently grungy decline. Possibly like our ecosystem, itself.

I would never use the word “pretty” to describe it and there were other installations in SiTE:LAB I liked better. But it is beautiful in the way that any artistic search for truth is beautiful. And many people were spending time with it. When you think that they were willing to give it and other works like it an open-minded consideration during ArtPrize, you realize this event is important. 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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