Last fall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an Art Deco Loch Ness monster appeared in the river, 100,000 paper airplanes were launched from rooftops of downtown buildings, and a tiger shark sculpted of colored ice lay in a refrigerated truck parked outside the Gerald R. Ford Museum.
These were among the entries in the first annual ArtPrize, an exhibition and competition that brought art to billboards, front lawns, and small businesses. San Chez Bistro, a tapas restaurant, had a kissing booth. At CompuCraft, a computer store, a wood sculpture of an owl hovered over a case of iPods.
The rules were simple. Anyone in the world could display work, as long as a venue in Grand Rapids agreed to host it. Anyone could vote to select the winners, after registering in person at an ArtPrize site. As many as 1,262 competitors—more than 900 of them from Michigan, but also from 40 other states and 14 other countries—vied for the grand prize of $250,000 and smaller cash awards. Over the course of two weeks, more than 200,000 people came downtown to see, vote, and eat (some restaurants ran out of food). Ultimately 334,219 votes were cast, first to narrow the field to ten, then to pick the winners.
First place went to Brooklyn-based Ran Ortner, for his oil painting Open Water No. 24, a massive three-panel canvas depicting a mighty greenish gray ocean, with precise renderings of white foam caps and ripples. The painting was recently on view at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. With his prize money, Ortner paid his phone bill and went back to work. He hired assistants for the first time, to help him complete a slew of commissions he says he received as a result of his ArtPrize exposure. He has a show through October 11 at Causey Contemporary, the Brooklyn gallery that represents him and that entered him in the contest.
Meanwhile the founders of ArtPrize are planning the next one, which will take place from September 22 through October 10.
“It’s new and it’s a bit strange,” says 28-year-old Rick DeVos, a Grand Rapids native and heir to the Amway fortune. DeVos is an entrepreneur with a few start-ups under his belt and no formal art training. He started ArtPrize with backing from his parent’s foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, which recently gave $22.5 million to endow the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “ArtPrize is not so much about art as community. It makes art fun to be a part of,” he says.
Some marvel at the fact that the size of the ArtPrize purse is larger than that of most prizes in the professional art world. Others take issue with letting the populace decide the winners, rather than art critics and curators. There are also questions about how a work’s location influences its chances.
In response to this feedback, ArtPrize is creating seven official entry points, spread out over the town, to help organize the viewing experience. At these venues, visitors can register to vote, see art selected by a committee of local curators, and obtain maps locating all the entries. DeVos hopes that visitors will make an effort to explore the entries in the surrounding neighborhoods as well (the number of total venues has increased to 192, from 159). ArtPrize has added juried prizes—for best use of urban space and best two- and three-dimensional works, for instance—to spotlight more pieces.
During the run of the show, artists build relationships with the community. Brooklyn-based Jason Hackenwerth stayed in the basement of a retired couple’s home. A car dealer lent him a Mustang convertible to get around, in exchange for performing at the dealership. A florist let him use a delivery truck to transport his sculptures to about a dozen school classrooms, where he spoke to kids about art. His exhibition at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts helped draw 85,000 people—more than twice the number of visitors UICA receives in a year. He took ninth place, earning $7,000.
Over the course of the competition, Ortner, the winner, was struck by the shift in attitude toward voting. At first people voted with their gut, he says. As the field narrowed, “I could see people taking stock, considering how their vote reflected Grand Rapids as a community, and their own ideas about what has value as art.”
Amanda Gordon is associate editor of ARTnews.