Why Crowd-Sourced Voting Can’t Win

Meleko Mokgosi's "Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo Sembumbulu"
Meleko Mokgosi’s “Pax Kaffraria: Sikhuselo Sembumbulu” (2012) at the Hammer Museum, for which he won the first Mohn Award (image via www.madeinla2012.org)

By now the votes are in, and the winner of LA’s inaugural Mohn Award has been announced: Botswana-born painter Meleko Mokgosi will receive $100,000 over the next two years, and a monograph will be published about his work. The Mohn Award, which is being funded by LA philanthropists and collectors Jarl and Pamela Mohn, was an American Idol–style arts competition that enlisted both art experts and the general public. The former chose five finalists from among the 60 artists in the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial — also happening for the first time this year — and the latter then decided the winner.

On the Mohn Award website, the creators write that they were inspired by the Tate’s £40,000 Turner Prize, which, in its early lauding of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, became quite infamous over the years, as well as the Whitney Museum’s Bucksbaum Award, which gives $100,000 to an artist in the Whitney Biennial. But with its crowd-sourcing structure, the Mohn Award also has much in common with art-world newcomer ArtPrize, which takes over Grand Rapids, Michigan, every year for a publicly decided contest between artists who set up their art all over town, anywhere that will host them. The ArtPrize winner receives a whopping $200,000.

It’s no surprise that the organizers of the Mohn Award wanted to be more closely associated with the Bucksbaum than ArtPrize; the latter hasn’t been exactly welcomed with open, or at least very serious, arms in the art world. In fact, that may the reason that ArtPrize announced the addition this year of a panel of judges, including critics Jerry Saltz, Tyler Green and Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, to choose a Juried Grand Prize winner. That person will receive — you guessed it, the magic number — $100,000.

At the heart of all this is to the art world’s perpetual identity crisis: Are we an elite? Should we try to reach out more to “non-art” people? Do you need to know about art to appreciate it? And how can visual art compete for attention and press alongside more immediately entertaining and accessible things like, well, American Idol? Crowd-sourced voting will probably stay with us as long as these questions are still around.

I’m all for trying to engage more people with art; many of my own friends are too intimidated to regularly go to museums, which I find supremely depressing. But there is a line between inviting people in and handing them the reigns. And I’m not sure the latter does anyone much good — except, I suppose, the artists who win that $100K.

No one seems to have yet found a way to force the populism and succeed: The Turner, which isn’t publicly voted on but highly publicized, became fodder for a tabloid fest in England, with artists calling the process of being nominated “hell.” ArtPrize has added judges in the hopes that the art world will accept it. Work of Art, which had judges, but aimed to make art accessible by way of exposing the “process” on reality TV, was a joke.

And the Mohn Award, in addition to meeting with some carefully considered skepticism from the LA art community, only brought in 2,051 voters (out of 4,300 people who registered). Now Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin has said in an interview with the LA Times that whether the prize will have public voting next time around is an open question. In her words:

We’re going to continue the award, there’s no question about that. The question is how … It’s really interesting. In a way we could decide to have the public vote completely or not have the public vote at all.

Made in L.A. 2012 is on view through September 2 at the Hammer Museum, LAXART and the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park. More information can be found here.

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