ArtPrize 2012 (what it is and what it is not)

Satch exhibited at ArtPrize 2012 at Schuler’s independent bookstore in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan so we decided to take it all in for a couple of days.  We rolled into downtown Grand Rapids just a little after noon on Sunday, September 30 to a scene that was incredible.  People were everywhere.  It wasn’t easy getting to our hotel, City Flats, located in the heart of downtown.

Satch chose our dates to visit ArtPrize figuring that 1) the crowds would have died down and 2) so we could go to the Jerry Saltz talk on October 1st.  She had it right about Jerry’s talk, but the crowds had anything but died down.

We found a parking spot in a garage close to our hotel and entered the fray on the streets.  Almost immediately we found Satch’s paintings nicely displayed in a large window where a lot of traffic would be walking by.  They really do it right when it comes to available information on an artist’s work.  Through a smart phone you were able to access an audio recording of Satch talking about her work.

Walking to our hotel, immediately it became obvious there was art of every type and quality everywhere.  We checked into the hotel and then ventured out into ArtPrize 2012.

We went to the The Hub to get information and to get Satch checked in, get her “swag bag” and her official artist placard!  The official ArtPrize map left a lot to be desired.  Such a large event needed a much more user-friendly format.

With Sunday’s huge crowds we decided to stay away from the bigger venues and kind of wander Grand Rapids’ downtown checking out the art that was scattered about in every kind of venue imaginable.

I can’t recommend City Flats enough.  Parking is a bit of a pain, but probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal under ordinary circumstances.  We had an excellent dinner accompanied by local brew.  We decided to make it an early evening so we could get started first thing in the morning.

So much for the idea that the crowds would thin out on Monday.  They started early and in earnest.  We headed out and were amazed by all of the people already on the streets.  At one time in the afternoon traffic ground to a halt as there were so many people on the sidewalks and crossing the streets that traffic never had a chance to move.  At least 500,000 people visited ArtPrize 2012.  Ends up that the public’s top ten had been announced and people were into seeing those works.  The voting was fast and furious.

Here’s where it all broke down for me.  Satch and I headed to the infamous B.O.B. for lunch and to check out the art that we had heard was garish and quite the circus.  Surprisingly only one of the several restaurants was open.  It was a zoo, or maybe a carnival, not only because of the huge crowd of people but because of the art and the artists.  There was one bright spot – our friend Harry Borgman exhibited on an upper level.  I’m biased, but his work was heads above anything else shown at The B.O.B.

I really don’t want to get into a criticism of much of the work at the B.O.B. but this would have been a good place where a lively discussion could have been had about what is and is not art.  There was a definite carnival atmosphere as some of the top ten vote-getters were at their work and virtually imploring people for votes.  Yes, this is a contest to win big money.  That’s the bottom line.

However, this year jurors were brought in to recognize and award work.  Before this ArtPrize was a public only vote for the most popular pieces.  The biggest money still goes to the public’s choices.

As we headed back toward the core of downtown we planned on stopping at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (The GRAM).  The line to get in was at least 500 feet long!  Two of the top ten were in the museum.  We decided to come back later.  Maybe three hours later the line was not too bad and we got in after a twenty minute wait.  Bodies were pressed onto the stairs that led to what became the grand prize winner.  Satch and I found an elevator that dumped us out right at the piece, a huge detailed pencil drawing that included monkeys and at least one elephant.  Satch and I went into the permanent galleries where we found a small but excellent collection of contemporary art.  The galleries were empty except for us and two women.  I guess Picasso and Motherwell et al really weren’t that interesting to the throngs testing the structural integrity of the museum’s staircase en route to view the future grand prize winner.

What Art Prize is not is an open call.  It is advertised as such, but it is not.  The major venues are curated and the artists are selected for those venues.  ArtPrize had to extend the “artist application” period because several of the curators’ artists were unable to get their applications in on time.  Many of the applications for these venues are blank with no work specified.  With all of the big money at stake I’m really not surprised that this is how ArtPrize works; disappointed, but not surprised.

For the less significant venues it is an open call.  Venues and artists get together and display work for the duration of ArtPrize.  This is a noble effort to expose people to art.  This is the predominant view – that ArtPrize is great for getting those that don’t frequent galleries and museums exposed to art.  Some critics have suggested that the quality of the art is not to the level of to which people should be exposed.  I can see this argument.

What always grates on me is how artists work hard, produce work, deliver the work, and in many cases install the work, all with no compensation.  Yet the businesses that host this work and are in proximity to the exhibition make a lot of money.  The economic impact from ArtPrize for downtown Grand Rapids has to be huge.  Yet most artists bear the entire cost of their endeavor.  In Indianapolis if First Fridays were to be abandoned the bars and restaurants would scream.  They rely on artists to provide free entertainment so they can rake is the dough every First Friday.  All of that being said, it is incredible what ArtPrize accomplishes in bringing people to art.

Monday evening we went to the Kendall College of Art to see their exhibits and to hear Jerry Saltz, the lauded art critic and writer.  (this is where I put some nasty words in my post to see if I can show up on Jerry’s daily blog search – idiot, clueless, total jerk, amateur, a**hole, blind, shrew)  The exhibits weren’t really my cup of tea.  There was a huge thing that looked like a tube sock puppet that talked.  I heard it complain about losing its job.

Satch got a chance to meet Jerry before the talk which was a real kick. He gave her a tough time about having only one name, like “Cher.”  Jerry told her she definitely needed two names.  This is a discussion we’ve had many many times.  We will see what happens.

Jerry’s talk was more than fantastic.  He went for an hour and forty-five minutes.  It sure didn’t seem like it.  He shared wisdom, humor, advice, perspective and life experiences.  It was a talk that I will never forget.  It was right there with talks I’ve heard from Vonnegut (always #1), Tom Wolfe and Bob Woodward.  His sincerity really showed and he was excited to be in a room that seemed to be into every sentence.  The art world is a much better place because Jerry Saltz is in it.

We headed back to City Flats and had another excellent dinner glowing in the after effects of Jerry’s talk.  He really got us thinking.  We also had a chance to reflect upon the past two days of ArtPrize.  We decided that we survived ArtPrize 2012 – they should have had a t-shirt.

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