Matt Killroy, "The Irish Street Musician, Celtic Kilroy" (2013). Performance and living sculpture located in downtown Grand Rapids. (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

Matt Killroy, “The Irish Street Musician, Celtic Kilroy” (2013). Performance and living sculpture located in downtown Grand Rapids. (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — Grand Rapids is a two hour drive due west of the state’s bankruptcy carnival that is Detroit, the hometown of President Gerald R. Ford, and the first city in the U.S. to add fluoride to its drinking water. It is an easy-to-visit city located on the banks of the Grand River whose early citizens were primarily of Dutch and German origin. Today, Grand Rapids is home to the annual ArtPrize, a sprawling, enormous art competition that covers the downtown and surrounding areas of the city. There is a ton of visual imagery to see and experience, and what constitutes art, Art and “art” is up for debate, literally.

To champion the work here as art, however, makes one feel populist, or just like the standards have been lowered. That’s an elitist statement right there. Yet anyone who makes art or writes about it hopes that, on some level, art can be for everyone. The gap between art and pure self-expression is wide, and ArtPrize challenges that idea. It also forces visitors to define their aesthetic tastes, declare what it is that they consider worthy of being part of the art cannon and, more importantly, consider who is allowed into the white cube world, and why. In this way, ArtPrize is a radical reconfiguring of contemporary art culture that points to the Art World’s epic elitist failure. It is an opportunity — however fraught — to allow anyone to call something Art and put it on display in a venue where visitors will see it and, no doubt, judge the hell out of it.

Mark Bommarito, "Petroleum Empire," steel and petro signs.

Mark Bommarito, “Petroleum Empire,” steel and petro signs.

One such venue was the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which I walked through upon arrival to this Midwestern city. Here I was struck when eavesdropping on conversations amongst people who I wouldn’t normally expect to see at an art museum in the middle of a weekday. They are the people who don’t have the time, money or desire to spend time with art, or they’re just aren’t delusional enough to partake in the classist, illusion-indusing grandiose art world. I watched them spending time with the work on the walls, trying to understand it, look and not glance, and come to conclusions about its messages. In art galleries, there is more often than not a quiet hush, a silent judgement, a look that signals ‘we’ll discuss this later’ and a coy, intellectual snobbery. At ArtPrize, there is no “I don’t get,” or visual imagery that speaks a cryptic language that one needs to learn to consider the meaning of “culture.” Everyone who comes to ArtPrize is game for learning something.

This year, there were 1,524 entries in the ArtPrize competition. The premise of ArtPrize goes like this: all are welcome to participate, no one is turned away, anyone can win, and the terms “critic” and “artist” take on a fluid, open-ended meaning. That is, anyone can be a critic or an artist in the bubble of ArtPrize, where a combination of public votes and juried prizes determine who will take home prizes ranging from $5,000–$200,000. It is challenging to traverse the city in search of noteworthy art because the city is packed. And unlike cruising through an art fair such as Expo Chicago, where the primary purpose is to buy or judge, the purpose of ArtPrize is to judge and learn.

In 2012, 400,000 visitors dropped into ArtPrize, and 412,560 votes were placed. With a range of art in installed in nearly 200 venues across the city, from coffeeshops where we urbanites are used to finding art, to downtown pizza joints, banks, bridges, parks, the Kendal College of Art & Design, the Women’s City Club, and the Diocese of Grand Rapids’ Cathedral Square. ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos, the grandson of the founders of Amway Corp., started ArtPrize in 2009, and is the reason this sum of money is available every year. ArtPrize is an experiment in supporting culture.

Yungjung Kang, "Holic" (2012), yarn, matte medium.

Yungjung Kang, “Holic” (2012), yarn, matte medium.

The results of the public and juried votes will be available on Thursday, October 4. Today the government shutdown forced two of the four ArtPrize top 10 finalists from the Gerald R. Ford Museum to tents outdoors. Two bear-heavy works left their cavern inside the museum for a tent outdoors — Anni Crouter’s painting “Polar Expressed” and Ann Loveless’ textile quilt “Sleeping Bear Dune Lakeshore” are joining Paul Baliker’s “Dancing With Mother Nature,” a sculpture of entangled driftwood, and Andy Sacksteder’s bronze sculpture of a nude man and woman of questionably vague ethnicities arching toward the sky, water squirting from one of the woman’s breasts. Next year I hope there is a sculpture that squirts water from a penis, two breasts, and the butt of a grizzly-polar bear hybrid, preferably an albino one. What could happen as a result of this confounding release of liquids from this arrangement of animals? Slap an entry number on its chest, submit it to ArtPrize, and wait for the people and visiting critics alike to decide what the F it is and if it deserves to be placed inside white walls, decontextualized from its Grand Rapidean ArtPrize origins.

Kathleen Studebaker, "The Waste Land" (2013), cast iron, steel, brass, MDF, plywood, cast plastic, and acrylic paint

Kathleen Studebaker, “The Waste Land” (2013), cast iron, steel, brass, MDF, plywood, cast plastic, and acrylic paint

Jason Gamrath, blue flowers from "Botanical Exotica" at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Jason Gamrath, blue flowers from “Botanical Exotica” at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Samuel Gomez, "Deadpan Comedy" (2013), graphite and ink on paper.

Samuel Gomez, “Deadpan Comedy” (2013), graphite and ink on paper.

Public yarn coverings scattered about the city of Grand Rapids

Public yarn bombings scattered about the city of Grand Rapids

Andy Sacksteder, "UPlifting" (2013), bronze. (image via

Andy Sacksteder, “UPlifting” (2013), bronze. (image via

ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a 19-day art competition, continues through October 6, 2013.

Editor’s note: ArtPrize paid for the author’s lodgings in Grand Rapids, and the Site:Lab reimbursed the author’s bus trip from Chicago.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...