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Nick Jakubiak, “Tired Pandas” (2013) is on the top 10 list for this year’s public vote. (image via the Tired Pandas Kickstarter page)

CHICAGO — At surface value, ArtPrize is all giant flowers, mythical dragons, yarn-bombed trees, and cash galore. Begun in 2009, the annual event attracts thousands of visitors from Michigan and elsewhere, a strange combination of populism and art world elitism wrapped into one — but it is not an idealistic “coming together” of the two populations.

The public-vote awards $200,000 to the winner plus another $160,000 for the top 10. Affectionately and hatefully referred to as DragonPrize for the many representations of this mythic beast, ArtPrize engenders Tumbler blogs such as ArtPrizeWorst, among many online forums that offer pointed critique and just plain anger. With the addition of the juried prizes last year — which include a $100,000 prize and five more $20,000 juried awards in specific categories — there is still hope that good art can be found in ArtPrize, an experiment in distributing large sums of money from the ultra-rich and ultra-conservative DeVos family, who are regular donors to the Republican Party, brush shoulders with the Koch Brothers, and are notoriously against gay marriage.

Artists must pay a $50 entry fee to show work in ArtPrize. They must also ship their work to ArtPrize and, if they care about their work, they are encouraged to purchase their own insurance. The event is almost entirely volunteer-run, and venues must agree to stay open during ArtPrize hours during the extensive three-week run of this event. With the exception of Paul Amenta’s smartly curated SiTE:Lab and the public intervention of yarn bombing, the cacophony of visual stuff plastering the walls of Grand Rapids establishments made it nearly impossible to think straight about any one or two particular visual works.

There are quite a few reasons — monetary, political and creative — not to participate in the spectacle-inducing, sensationalized event that is ArtPrize. I spoke with three members of the Grand Rapids art community — Chris Cox, co-owner of Gaspard Gallery, Anna Campbell, Assistant Professor of Art at Grand Valley State, and George Wietor, cofounder of The Division Avenue Arts Collective — about why they did not involve themselves with ArtPrize this year.

Chris Cox, Co-organizer of Gaspard Gallery

Sammie Madson, “Form in Motion 1,” (2013). Oil on board. One painting from a triptych. (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Walking down Division Street past the array of yarn bombings and the Take Hold Church, I started to notice the city changing. More people were waiting for buses, there was a faint smell of booze lingering, and the glossy ArtPrize venues signs were gone. On my walk I happened upon Gaspard Gallery, a space I checked out last year during my visit to ArtPrize. The gallery hosted their inaugural exhibition, Spiritual Lake, during the event, and showed a gorgeous underwater landscape of bodies floating and colliding with one another. Last year, the series by Grand Rapids-based photographer Chris Cox was a welcome break from the many ArtPrize sculptures of big things made of many little things like this year’s “Tired Panda,” a top 10 finalist. This year I returned to Gaspard — a gallery that takes its name from the Persian word for “treasurer” — in hopes of seeing more of the same.

Gaspard did not participate in ArtPrize this year, but they did allow me to peek in at their current fall group exhibition which is an assortment of ghostly photos by Cox, Sammie Madson’s “Form in Motion 1,” one slice of a triptych that appears like a David Lynchian painted body that appears like a hallucinatory vision of twins, and a scratchy minimalist painting of pink with white chipped away from its core.

“It’s tough — people have been asking me why I didn’t participate in ArtPrize this year,” Cox told me when we chatted via phone. “From my perspective, there is only so much you can get from ArtPrize. For the artist who thinks ‘I am going to go to ArtPrize, win the public vote, and have a career’ — I don’t think that’s realistic. Of course $200K would help you a lot, but I’m not sure it would give the critical acclaim people expect from that.”

Cox noted the opportunities for exposure that came from showing at ArtPrize, including getting work seen by Jerry Saltz and yours truly. He tells me that he doesn’t have anything against ArtPrize in general — but this year the timing just didn’t work out.

“It’s really cool that a small town like Grand Rapids can get people to come look at art work,” says Cox. “A lot of it is shit, hung terribly, but I think that’s a representation of art in general. I try to go out to every exhibition, and have really only seen a few great local shows in the past few years.”

Anna Campbell, Associate Art Professor at Grand Valley State

Anna Campbell, “A Pocket, a cue, a shot” (2013). (image via

Professor Anna Campbell and I met for dinner at Pub 43, a cozy tavern known for being both gay and artist-friendly. On a TV screen in one corner, a video art piece of a lens going in and out of focus while traveling over domestic items played on a loop. Campbell showed her work here in the 2009 inaugural ArtPrize. She created custom-made coasters that critiqued the source of ArtPrize’s funding, calling out the DeVos family’s anti-gay marriage agenda. She only printed 1,000 coasters; within a few days, they were gone. Had she known, she says she would have printed thousands more. For the three years after her initial ArtPrize debut, Campbell hopped on as an assistant juror. Having just returned from a sabbatical this year, Campbell decided not to participate at all. Of her initial coaster project, she notes that “I felt like there is no way for me to participate in this thing that isn’t institutional criticism — I cant ignore the frame to do something else.”

That said, sharp political art like this is a departure from Campbell’s sculpture-focused practice, in which she retools commonplace objects, juxtaposing materials to create new forms. “A Pocket, a cue, a shot” (2013) is a mattress that doesn’t appear new tucked into a custom-made frame of a pool table. There are no balls to play with, but if there were they might fall into one of the pockets — a strip of pantyhose, dangling down, and the mattress is cut open in the corners, guts and dark insides exposed. The cue is nuanced, a subtle gesture from one viewer to another while standing across the table. In other words, this is not the type of work that one might find at the free-for-all ArtPrize.

“I would say that the frame of the question is not ‘why not choose to do ArtPrize — it’s not something that you sit down to decide, because there are not a lot of reasons to initiate participating,” says Campbell. “Because it’s so open, it doesn’t do anything for your CV. You get more traffic for work, but not traffic from people who can participate in a dialogue with you necessarily. I suppose if it were an excuse to show at the GRAM or Fred Meyers, that’s something I would think about and suck it up that it would be in an ArtPrize exhibit.”

The lack of curatorial options outside of SiTE:Lab and artist-run spaces, too, is another hindrance. “I’m teaching this curating class, and I am thinking about context and how that affects the work — or even just that I’m an artist and trying to make work that communicates and that you’ll be drowned out by art that is big objects made of smaller objects,” she explains.

That’s not to say there’s nothing redemptive about ArtPrize for people who do want to participate — not necessarily to further their art careers, but to get a chance at showing something to a lot of people. “There are two things that work in ArtPrize – it is a taste,” says Campbell. “So if you are seven, and you get to go downtown Grand Rapids at ArtPrize, and you won’t see art under any other circumstance, it is nice to have a taste. If you’re a 42-year-old guy and you like to make stuff in your garage and you see that someone made a giant lion out of 40,000 nails, and you think oh that’s art and its OK, that’s good, too.”

George Wietor, Cofounder of The Division Avenue Arts Collective

A poster commissioned for Breathe Owl Breathe’s Spring 2012 Tour with Laura Gibson. (image via

I reached out to Mr. Wietor, a dedicated member of the Grand Rapids art community who wears many hats, including actively producing and publishing artist-made books under the small independent publishing house and print shop Issue Press, and the cofounder of the nine-years-and-running Division Avenue Arts Collective, a volunteer-run all-ages music/art venue and DIY cultural space. Like Campbell, Wietor did not participate in this year’s ArtPrize, but did provide Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian with commentary from last year’s event. He gave us permission to use his answers from 2012, and noted that he can’t speak to how things have changed or not changed this year. In response to a question about what ArtPrize could do to make the local art community feel more welcome, Mr. Wietor noted that people who were onboard after the first year seem to be pretty gung-ho still.

“You either love it, and acknowledge some of its faults, or dislike it and acknowledge some of its positive attributes,” says Wietor. “The artists who will always work for the promise of exposure will continue to participate, and I don’t really fault anyone for wanting to. But, I have little pity for those who do and are disillusioned with the process. You get what you pay for. Literally, you pay to participate.”

Is there an opportunity for ArtPrize to move beyond the guffaws and jabs of its DragonPrize moniker, among other problems, and be taken seriously by the international art community? After walking through the event feeling increasingly disappointed by the stuff on display, yet hopeful about some of the truly curious conversations happening in front of some works of art, I too wondered why there were not more lectures, panels, symposiums, or even artist-curator conversations?

“If ArtPrize wants to establish itself as a world class art event that is truly changing the way we interact with art, it needs to back it up with world class educational opportunities for the public at large and that can’t really happen in the amount of time it is allotted,” says Wietor. “Now that we are four years [at the time of this interview, in 2012] down the road, it seems like we can move beyond the gimmick of the purse size, and funnel some of that money towards things that actually improve our community’s understanding and respect for art – things that help people fully take advantage of their ability to vote.”

This would, of course, assume a sort of educational level that many of the folks who come out to ArtPrize do not have. And that is the fault of larger structural systems, of an America that does not value or support the arts and that regularly votes to cuts funding for the NEA and other arts organizations.

ArtPrize is not going to fix this larger systemic problem. But as Wietor says about the amount of money being poured into ArtPrize: “Could you imagine the kind of programming that $250,000 could support?”

ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan ran through October 6.

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Alicia Eler

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...

12 replies on “ArtPrize and Its Discontents”

  1. Must art be mediated by art professionals to be considered valid? When an artist bypasses
    the gallery/academic/dealer complex, that doesn’t mean they’re creating “bad art”. In fact, the pieces ridiculed here would qualify as outsider or folk art provided a gallery owner, an academic, or an art dealer stood next to them and pronounced them so. So, while I agree that context is important, most public art events (even those sponsored by nice, friendly liberals…) tend to be a cacophony of different styles and media. That’s half the fun. I think’s a lot of sour grapes and snobbery at work within the opposition to this event.

  2. The first large public art commissioned for Grand Rapids was the Calder stabile that still sits at the civic center. At the time of its installation it was so controversial, because, would you believe, the particular color red it was painted was said by some to be the same color as the ‘communist’ flag (the US was deep into the Viet Nam conflict at the time). So hyped up were local attitudes that the front window of the house of the woman who was the primary promoter of the project was shot out in an early version of a ‘drive by’ shooting! The general attitude of Grand Rapids’ population toward art appears to have shifted slightly since then. But it appears at this point in the run of the art prize event the lofty and rather naive intentions of the founders to make the city into a respected world class art destination have devolved in to generic civic boosterism. With locals referring to the event as Panderprize, because so many artists caught on to the type of work they needed to offer to win a popular vote, and with many locals simply leaving town during the event the way one would evacuate a disaster zone, the original idea of the founder of the show, to create a kind of viral event, has resulted in more of an infection rather than a cure.

  3. ArtPrize is a work of art in and of itself. It asks the question, “what is art?”. It asks it in a way that many may not be comfortable with. My niece was part of a teacher’s ArtPrize project where each school child got to paint a leaf. All the child’s leaves were in a large room that parents could go and see. Is this art? It’s art for who it’s meant to be art for.

    Yes there is a lot of crap but that’s the price you pay for being an open competition. In evolution most mutations are crap too. ArtPrize is a perfect place for outsider to the art world like Howard Finster to find their bearings (even if it comes at a price of having to see ten giant pennies that themselves are made of pennies).

    Also a lot of people criticizing ArtPrize don’t understand the structure of it. Different venues have drastically different personalities. Some places you are going to get a lot of kitsch because that’s what pleases their demographic. The panda made out of tires and the dragon was outside of a building full of bars and restaurants. More serious work can be seen at properties owned by art schools, churches, and galleries.

  4. I feel like the most curated venues like the Ford Museum and the Grand Rapids Art Museum hold their artists to a higher standard. Trust me, I was an artist and tried to get into the GRAM, Ford Museum and Site:Lab. They have well though out exhibits and don’t allow what is perceived by the public as kitsch. I didn’t have a kitschy piece but that just shows their level of dedication to curating their spaces. There are in fact public events to enhance understanding and appreciation of art but most people don’t go to them because they feel like it’s people who are already in the arts and often conflict with other events the city has to bolster publicity for this event. Being from Grand Rapids it hurts to see such scathing articles about the event by people who didn’t even go. There are upsides and downsides to being such an open concept idea being judged by a largely arts ignorant crowd. Yes there are crappy pieces but those generally get ignored and the places that are heavily curated get the highest traffic. People will go to where good art is. Plain and simple, and if you happen to pass something that catches your eye and provokes a thought, that’s as important as the most talked about pieces and popular venues.

  5. I participated in this years ArtPrize and for the life of me I can’t understand this article or the dozens of others like it that I have encountered on the internet. I found the experience extremely rewarding; I encountered countless people, most of them not denizens of the “art world”, who were generally keen to not only consider the work but engage in a dialogue with it and with me about it. I received emails from people who after viewing my work felt compelled to contact me. I had long, engaged conversations with people about my work, regarding both my process and the works content. I’ve shown in and attended openings for about ten years and NEVER have I encountered such engagement with the work. Most openings are more like cocktail parties in galleries then the dialogue that I encountered in Grand Rapids, everyone standing around hoping to be seen. A professor of mine once stated that the only reason you attend openings is to support friends and colleagues, that if you want to engage with the art you go at another time, in Grand Rapids 90% of the people I encountered were there for the latter reason and not the former. Hyperallergic needs to get out more.

  6. Arprize is not at all what it said it open competition that is designed to foster critical dialogue about art with the public. It is a festival. The art is really an entertainment, a curiosity. As a participant of the event last year, we discovered that the festival is designed to to create commerce for the Grand Rapids area, not foster art understanding or education. Artists are like a pawn, lured to GR for the chance at the big carrot…$200,000! The cash prize is a cheap price to pay for roughly $13 million generated in incremental business to the area. Artists are like the clowns in a circus, used to entertain and to give people a reason to come to GR, enjoy the spectacle and buy some beer and hot dogs.
    I say “right on” to this pursuit of commerce. But to try to make the Artprize circus a legitimate venue for “critical art dialogue” is ridiculous. To try to have the critics legitimize it as anything other than a festival is a farce. No credibility can be given to an event in which a celebrated (and compensated) juror declares a giant talking sock puppet “weirdly wonderful”….now there is some enlightened critical dialogue, thanks for the art education and the enlightenment. Where else is the release of some cheap Chinese paper lanterns on a lovely night. voted one of the top 5 art entries? Only at Artprize.

    1. You are so correct about how shamelessly artists are exploited by this event. Required to pay $50 to participate, undertake all other costs associated with transportation, installation and even sourcing their own venues. They end up participating in a kind of perverted lottery in which members of the public are also pawns in a sort of business school graduate student thesis project. You have to remember how the people who thought it up started their world wide empire, by burning down their yacht, collecting the insurance money and using it to start Amway!

      1. Agree, the DeVos family own that town; restaurants, stores, hotels, even part of the airport. They make a ton of money off the event and on top of it all they are celebrated as the generous local heroes. Artists are catering to the event knowing what the public responds to. Cutesy animals made from tens of thousands of pins, nails, pennies as well as religious motives are always a win in this conservative town.

    2. I don’t think Mr. DeVos ever claimed ArtPrize to be anything other than a way to bring some revenue into Grand Rapids and in fact an interview I read with him said that he didn’t think that ArtPrize would elevate the discourse in GR or necessarily expose people to better art. Anyone who participates in an exhibition where the general public gets to determine the “best” work by voting ought to have some inkling what they’re getting into.

      1. Artists cant rely on what was said in
        an interview Kim. Most entrant artists don’t have access to that.
        Take the time to read the mission statement on the official Artprize
        Website…it tells a different story. You will find statements about
        “critical dialogue” about art and ‘radically open”. If was
        intended to be an art fair entertainment for the masses, then why bring in celebrity judges to validate
        and judge entries? The artist that apply to this event can only make judgment
        calls about it via the information presented on the web site or by personally
        attending. I can tell you, that the event takes on a whole new meaning as
        an artist versus as a casual visitor. I have been both. I can also
        tell you that the event does nothing to elevate art or the artist….and in my
        opinion and experience marginalizes both. I am all for commerce and we
        have many cities that would love to have this kind of economic residual.
        But to do it by saying you are one thing and doing another is wrong.

  7. I have to call out some pieces in this article. A mattress inside a pool table? Exactly the kind of drivel I expect to see inside a hotel “gallery” during ArtPrize. Objects made out of other objects is a constant. If a non-professor did that it would be listed as an ArtPrize Worst.

    And while I love SiteLab, the juried prize went to someone who walked into an existing room, painting some walls solid colors and walked away with $100,000. Meh. Easily the most forgettable piece at SiteLab (which had many more interesting works.)

    PS if you’re going to link to a tumblr as your evidence, maybe use one that’s still active? The end of the ArtPrize Worst tumblr might indicate hating on ArtPrize has become passe.

  8. I, for one, feel art is as it always has been -a form of communication. All art can be considered as having purpose in one way or another. The main purpose is to gather conversation and enlighten the mind and heart toward better understanding of a subject through human interaction. Although I find some forms of art confusing and others exciting, I feel ArtPrize has been helpful in that it does give to an artist exposure as well as opportunity to be heard and seen. The streets of Grand Rapids have always been filled with wonder as I linger here and there during my years of involvement of this great venture. It fills the need in me to see people learning and engaging in art inside positive mannerisms and togetherness; which, is so rare in so many ways. Keep up the spirit of ArtPrize and keep a positive heart and mind.

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