At least four times a day, I walk my dog past the ArtPrize office in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. The ground-floor space has large windows through which I can see the installation “EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING RIGHT HERE” by Justin Langlois and Hiba Abdallah which ArtPrize acquired after the 2017 competition. I see my two-year-old fuzzy, blue souvenir pillow in the shape of ArtPrize’s logo that I created in 2018 in collaboration with Conduit Studio, a local design agency. The logo is a take on Alexander Calder’s monumental sculpture “La Grande Vitesse” (1969) which stands in front of City Hall and the Kent County buildings on the eponymous Calder Plaza. I see framed posters from every ArtPrize competition since its inception in 2009 hanging above empty desks where the staff used to sit before they were furloughed. This year, the 2020 competition was cancelled due to concerns of hosting the exhibition safely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is unclear whether it will return next year.
Every fall, over a thousand artists participate in the independently organized international art competition. This year, the excitement of having a shared and immersive three-week-long, city-wide artistic experience with people in a swing city in a swing county in a swing state was missing. While most artwork entered into ArtPrize is created with traditional media and focuses on classic themes best exemplified by 2011 First Place winner Mia Tavonatti’s giant stained glass mosaic of Jesus titled “Crucifixion”, the ArtPrize audience also experiences contemporary themes and experimental work best exemplified by 2018 Jurors’ Grand Prize winner Le’Andra LeSeur’s multimedia time-based performance “brown, carmine, and blue.”
As an unofficial cheerleader for the organization, I’m devastated to see ArtPrize come to an end. Nearly a decade ago, I wrote my first article about my first ArtPrize experience on a then young blog called Hyperallergic. Over the years, ArtPrize has given me the opportunity to produce and exhibit what I’ve wanted to make bypassing the severity of gatekeepers in the way that Hyperallergic does. In 2019, Jerry Saltz tweeted that ArtPrize was a “wonderful agency-giving art organization.” My post-graduate career emerged alongside ArtPrize and Hyperallergic and I can’t imagine a time without either, but here I am having to say goodbye to one of them.
And it is very hard for me to say goodbye to ArtPrize as I think about how it has changed my life. In 2016, after creating a video installation at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts as my fourth entry into ArtPrize, I moved from San Francisco to Grand Rapids a week before the presidential election. My experiences in the city during the event were so special that I decided I had to live in Grand Rapids full time. You might find it incredibly ironic then that the much contested organization with a strong relationship to the DeVos name is the reason that I, a gay Asian-American man, moved to the epicenter of the Christian Reformed Church and eventually met my fiancé. In this place far from an art world influencer’s radar, I’ve discovered an ability to create my own fantasy, self-funded artwork with undeniable agency.
Without ArtPrize, I expected the city this fall to be quiet but instead, I was surprised to see it thrive. With unused sponsorship money being returned, I was approached to participate in a new arts event titled “Bridge Grand Rapids” where I was commissioned to create a temporary, large-scale, outdoor installation. Then, our city’s arts lovers were informed of “Rapid Art Movement”, a new arts event organized by the Avenue for the Arts that was built specifically for social distancing. While neither matched the incredible visitor numbers typically seen at ArtPrize, the urgency and production for both events were a faithful reminder of how much the city values art and artists.
This year, in the midst of armed protests at Michigan’s State Capitol against the governor’s stay-at-home orders, a foiled plot to kidnap her, and a destructive riot following a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Grand Rapids, our region is committed to art opportunities. As I walk my dog in the downtown neighborhood, I think about the art I could have seen in windows and on park lawns, and hope that people can flock to this city once again to experience the spectacle of a city-wide art event and ultimately perform the very American privilege of casting a vote.