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

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.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

7 replies on “Why Crowd-Sourced Voting Can’t Win”

  1. Jillian – As soon as I saw the headline to this article, I thought: Art Prize. Living as I do in Chicago, I personally know of several people who are entering the AP this year (you may well know some people from New York or Brooklyn doing it, too). During the first year of the prize, I even helped out an artist friend to install her piece on the banks of the river in Grand Rapids. Her overall experience was not good, and the crowd voting aspect (plus the somewhat nefarious motives of the Amway sponsors of the Art Prize, perhaps) is partly respondible for that. It’s the lure of the money that draws the poor impoverished artists, isn’t it? And it would be hard to dissuade people with other arguments in the face of that. Hopefully, though, the presence of judges like Saltz and Green will salvage something of merit from the sea of mediocrity.

    1. “It’s the lure of the money that draws the poor impoverished artists, isn’t it?” Yes, I think you’re so right. And you can’t really blame them. But then it ends up a circus, and I can only wonder what kind of effect it would have on your morale/self-esteem as an artist, jumping through all those hoops while knowing it’s a popularity contest. I don’t know how much anybody learns or gains from popularity contests.

  2. Bottom line is that the best artist won! No other artist in “Made in LA” could touch the power and soul of Meleko Mokgosi’s work. I see the experiment as a success. Sure it needs to be tweaked. I found the voting process incredibly clumsy and not surprised half the people that registered didn’t vote. It seems the design of the voting system was more focused on preventing any sort of rigging than promoting engagement. I was surprised they didn’t have the voting open on opening night when the crowd was robust. The “experts” are often way too embedded in the art market to offer objective insights and they are viewed with great skepticism outside their bubbles. In my experience as a museum director and curator that experimented with interactive campaigns, I can share that over and over again I found audiences to be more sophisticated than the average art critic. Processing art primarily through your brain rarely gets you to wow.

  3. Jillian, I feel fine art’s relationship with the general public is struggle in a way. The public is estranged from consuming art so they are not particularly educated about it, nor do they have any stake in what becomes popularized.

    I often wonder how different the landscape would be if americans would invest in art as they do in entertainment. What if people spent as much as they did on the TV for a painting in their living room?

    1. Nice article + nice comment. I think the strained relationship between fine art and the general public is difficult and has a few different facets. One is definitely the lack of education about art: what is out there, how has contemporary art shifted and why, why people have ever been making art in the first place, who makes it, what can it do, what can’t it do, etc. Pretty open-ended questions, but that’s what creativity is for (not just for making art, but feeling it out + interpreting it).

      There is probably quite a spectrum when it comes to how art is taught at the primary/secondary school level, but my feeling was always that there should have been as much of a focus on fostering a curious and engaged audience for the diverse expressions of visual culture as there was on making projects/how to draw. Otherwise, huge swaths of students totally lose interest in it + get frustrated/bored when they reach that age where they notice that some of their peers are better art-makers than others. Art involves a kind of thinking full of questions, not just a doing or a set of manual technical skills. Neglecting that pretty much assures that the adult audience will be tiny and/or misinformed about what art can be and why … and possibly even more easily led to the same old watering holes. I don’t know what can be tackled at the elementary school level or how really, but 3rd grade art class should be more similar to whatever a 3rd grade philosophy class or lit discussion would look like. However that might work, but still. It sounds interesting to me.

      I think one of the other problems is a lack of casual encounters with a variety of art for most people. Nevermind buying stuff – I think it would be a huge step if some more people even cared about it + valued it. Aside from advertising, awareness of a lot of visual culture (esp the contemporary fine art variety) that artists and the like take for granted as common knowledge are effortlessly invisible to the general public. I think for most folks, there isn’t a real correlate to the casual and personalized meandering journeys that get started by digging through parents/older siblings old records at home or whatever … plus the parents/older siblings of friends … radio, other chance surprise encounters, whatever else. If there is an algorithm buried in there, it’s a million times more mind-blowing than something like Pandora or a textbook. A lot of exciting discoveries happen with music because of how easy that is to do. And it tends to lead to more + more digging, like a starting gun … only without the same kind of cold snobby shadow of institutional authority falling over what you must and mustn’t appreciate. I think some things totally suck and some things are phenomenal as much as the next elitist snob (without falling for my own self-generated hype enough to believe I’m some kind of better person for my particular tastes), but I also try not to turn people off SO badly that my grandkids will be left homeless thanks to my sparkling charms/modus operandi.

      There are more problems, but this comment is already too long-winded and late to the party.

      Sooo … No way the audience for contemporary ‘fine’ art is going to approach that of television. No big woop. If it did, I sincerely doubt my favorite shows would be the ratings-grabbers anyway. And yeah, crowd-sourced voting sounds lame. Popularity contests are empty pageantry, like Jillian said [paraphrasing]. I’m only really interested in my own vote at the end of the day. I just think the audience for art has the potential to be bigger (even if only by a little bit) and much more diverse, and I think that getting there would improve things beyond just numbers. It would help more artists out … and several different breeds of artists. Not just the game-players and strong stomachs that I think the professional art world currently exerts selection pressures for, particularly those with more financial resources to dispose of (I also think there are some good artists in there, that’s not my point … I’m talking about what/who gets marginalized and discouraged). The impression people have of the professional ‘Art World’ may always be closer to a fart joke than genuine reverance, but that’s cool. I’d be more worried if it was the other way around. I think that a relationship to the art itself is a better investment than a relationship to all of us various living + breathing cartoon characters that stand around it chattering and slobbering and profiting or losing and stroking and snapping at each other. Lots of rock stars and groupies are a joke too, but I still blast the jams in the shower and I love it. Not the dumb jams that suck, though.

      1. Thanks for your wonderfully long and thought-out comment, Christopher. I agree that an engagement with art could and should start so much earlier for people, and that it’s not just an engagement with images but with a way of thinking and questioning. I have a very good friend who’s always been put off by art, but I took her to a performance not too long ago, and I think it sort of opened her mind. And slowly, little by little, from reading about some performance artists and seeing more stuff, she’s come to realize that art doesn’t have to be this cold, institutional, forbidding thing, that it’s alive and organic and can be playful. It’s such an amazing process to watch and witness, it makes me want to find a way to help everyone toward this realization.

        1. @twitter-372303713:disqus Thanks for the response, Jillian – I’m glad you threw performance in there, since my comment kept referring specifically to visual culture. That warming process is something I’m really interested in, too … cheers to that 🙂

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