Art of the City

Grand Old Party: At Michigan’s ArtPrize, the Country’s Biggest Art Award

More than 1,500 artists, professional and amateur, vie for $560,000 in prizes, awarded by jurors and the public

It’s easy to forget from within the cozy bubble of the New York art game that there is no such thing as one, single art world. There are many of them, and this past weekend I spent time in two wildly disparate ones.

Tonya Nielsen's sculpture NOW outside the Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Tonya Nielsen’s sculpture NOW outside the Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

On Friday night I found myself in one of the liveliest corners of the art world where the money flows—the one which convenes each year in London and Miami and Basel—at a party thrown by Jeffrey Deitch at Red Hook’s PioneerWorks space. We were celebrating a book about the 15-year history of his gallery, Deitch Projects, once the epicenter of a certain brand of downtown cool, which he closed in 2010 to become director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The book is called Live the Art.

It was a great party—notwithstanding complaints about the lack of liquor—and also a weird one. Déjà vu gripped the festivities. Santigold and the Cold Crush Brothers played in the warehouse’s cavernous hall, though the firm majority of the crowd remained outside, enjoying one of the last warm nights of the year as night fell. Dealer and Deitch acolyte Kathy Grayson’s little dog darted around everyone’s feet.

Partial installation view of Libby Allen's The ABCs of Hip Hop at Founders Brewing Co.

Partial installation view of Libby Allen’s The ABCs of Hip Hop at Founders Brewing Co.

Much of the talk centered on Deitch. Has his moment passed? Can the failed museum director, the indefatigable heatseeker, recapture the zeitgeist? Shouldn’t he just rest on his laurels? The artists he helped launch have moved on. Many are celebrities now.

Nine hours after leaving the party I stepped off a plane in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to be part of the jury for ArtPrize, an annual competition, now in its sixth year, that this time around had more than 1,500 artists showing work at 174 venues around Beer City (née Furniture City) for three weeks. Anyone who plunks down $50 and finds a place to show gets to participate, and jurors and the public get to pick winners in various categories (2-D art, time-based, etc.) with prizes ranging from $20,000 to $200,000, making it the best-funded art award in the United States. The monetary rewards are about the only thing it has in common with Deitch.

I’m happy to report that this art world has the same sorts of uncomfortable class and political problems as the big-money one. ArtPrize is the brainchild of Rick DeVos, the grandson of Rich DeVos, the cofounder of Amway, the multi-level marketing company that has periodically been accused of exploiting, or at least, misleading people who buy in to its programs. (There’s a great bar in town called Pyramid Scheme.) The DeVos family is worth billions, and they’re a philanthropic bunch, giving money to healthcare, cultural groups, and an impressive selection of right-wing causes.

Stanley Skopek's Dawn of Chimes at the Ford Museum.

Stanley Skopek’s Dawn of Chimes at the Ford Museum.

ArtPrize was designed to be an economic engine, to bring people to Grand Rapids, a post-industrial town that saw the loss of both the Austin Automobile Company and an extensive lumber industry in the first half of the 20th century. ArtPrize is a massive success at assembling crowds Downtown—the streets and restaurants were jam-packed on Saturday and Sunday with visitors.

As an art event, though, ArtPrize’s quality is quite a bit more questionable. There were boatloads of kitschy, bland, boring art—about 95 percent, I’d estimate. Wandering through museums, galleries, coffee shops, Propaganda Donuts (great donuts), a high-end pasta store, a market, parks, the iconic Calder Plaza, and hotels began to feel soul crushing. Among the offerings:

– A raptor made out of brass instruments at the President Ford Library (wonderful stuff there about Ford’s life and career, though).
– Miniature whale sculptures arrayed around the fountain in my Amway-branded hotel.
– Gargantuan wooden letters spelling out, “NOW,” adorned with clocks.
– Horses in just about every imaginable medium (dragons were popular in past years, I was told).
– A disturbing number of sculptures of large humans flying, with or without wings.
– A giant crucified Jesus made out of nails.

It was brutal.

Alex Podesta's Self-Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers) in the Grand River.

Alex Podesta’s Self-Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers) in the Grand River.

But then, after a long night’s sleep and beers at a few of the city’s wonderful craft breweries, I decided to chill out. About 95 percent of art on any given Chelsea visit is also mediocre to bad, and at least this stuff had the benefit of being bad in interesting ways. A lot of it looked like it was from another planet, with different standards of aesthetic criteria.

The sheer volume of the work started to throw me off and make me question my judgment. Maybe the brass raptor was kind of awesome, I thought. Children certainly loved it. Two lifelike sculptures of people in pink bunny suits swaying eerily in the Grand River all day and night: definitely awesome.

And the people were into it. Their enthusiasm was infectious.

Strolling along the long art-filled halls of the DeVos Convention Center, kids were learning to be art critics, trashing things within earshot of many of the artists who were earnestly on hand to explain their work.

Jaclyn Santos, who had hung her paintings in the blow-dry bar she works at, BANG (“Get Banged,” a sign outside read), rushed out the door when she saw people passing by, urging them in to have a look.

Partial installation view of Jaclyn Santos's Transmutation at BANG, which features iPhones that let you see paintings with negative colors.

Partial installation view of Jaclyn Santos’s Transmutation at BANG, which features iPhones that let you see paintings with negative colors.

In past years the project has even inspired some Simpsons-worthy mischief, particularly from a 20-something troublemaker named Rob Bliss who threw tens of thousands of paper airplanes from the city’s buildings as a performance in 2009, and at another point built a giant water slide through the streets of the city. (Sadly he was sitting this year out, but the irreverent ArtPrize: The Musical, staged by a local burlesque group, represented him in all his glory.)

The local NBC affiliate even interrupted their normal evening programming on Monday for an hour-long live broadcast for the jurors to announce our picks. The perky morning show anchors emceed, and one of the hosts, Emily Linnert, asked me if we should look at art with our heads or our hearts. “Both!” I cried.

Most of the work I selected was by professional artists—people who had shown at institutions elsewhere—but I’d also come across the city’s action-packed Heartside Art Studio, which provides working space to all comers in the economically tenuous area and had organized a collective show of gutsy, emotional paintings and ceramics called “Unchain the Neighborhood.” Javanna Bagley made an elegant, Ralston Crawford-style painted scene of a highway underpass. Mike Katerberg had a wood relief that showed a muscled man, breaking chains that held him in bondage. That show was alone worth the trip.

At a cocktail party at his condo the evening before the television broadcast, Dana Friis-Hansen, the director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum (an impressive building, designed by Kulapat Yantrasast), talked about what he called “the stroller brigades” who attend ArtPrize—the parents and children who go out and look at art, year after year.

Those families are growing up looking at art, and as time passes, they’re going to demand more from it, as well as the institutions that promote it. It has become a part of their lives, at a younger age and to a degree that is perhaps greater than in any other city in the United States. What more can you hope for from an economic development scheme?

Other cities have been studying the ArtPrize model. A few of them should give it a try. Artists from the monied professional art world are never going to enter these public contests en masse, but with a little bit of time, artists who start their careers at them—or simply grow up attending them—will be gaining attention, elbowing their way into that other art world. We will all be better for it.

“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.

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