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What Will the Media Report on After ArtPrize?

October 1, 2009

The first voting phase of ArtPrize has just been completed and before we know it the finally tallies will be in and ArtPrize will be over. Based on the type of and amount of local news coverage this event has generated, we thought it might be useful to place ArtPrize coverage next to other issues of importance to the community.

Before making any comparisons, it is worth looking at the ongoing coverage of ArtPrize in recent weeks. We have already looked at the ArtPrize media phenomenon is a previous posting from September 19, but here are some observations since then.

The local TV stations continue to provide daily coverage of ArtPrize with specific ArtPrize sections on their web sites like this one at WOODTV8. Most of the local news outlets tended to mimic each other’s coverage, like the story about how downtown restaurants were overwhelmed by the weekend traffic generated by ArtPrize. The FOX 17 story was typical, with lots of language about this being the most amazing event Grand Rapids has ever experienced, but with emphasis on how restaurant owners made out like bandits.


WZZM 13 had a few other elements that were tapping into the ArtPrize buzz. First, the added to the web site banner in big letters “The Place to See ArtPrize.” They also included on their main page a banner and link to their own photo contest under the heading “What is Art?” The contest is also based on voting, with the winner receiving $1,300. WZZM 13 partnered with local furniture company Haworth to promote their own contest.

The Grand Rapids Press has in many ways been the most zealous of ArtPrize supporters in local media. Beyond what we have already documented, the very first day they altered the design of the front page so that it looked like an ArtPrize magazine cover. They continue to provide daily front-page coverage and several other pages full of stories and photos.


The most egregious example to date was the Monday, September 28 coverage, driven mostly by the reporting on the Rob Bliss paper airplane spectacle. The Press did several stories about this ArtPrize entry days before it happened, but the coverage afterwards was pretty astounding. The main story on 9/28 gushed with praise of the event created by what the Press reported has dubbed “urban event organizer Rob Bliss.”

There has been plenty of online discussion about whether or not the paper airplane drop was art or not, but as we have said all along the real beneficiaries of the ArtPrize phenomenon has been the downtown business and property owners. The financial incentive is tremendous, which is exactly why the local media has created so much content around ArtPrize, because this is what they believe will bring people to their web sites and thus, bring visitors to see the multitude of ads that inhabit those electronic destinations. As in the print version of the Press and the broadcast channels of the tv stations, advertising is king, because advertising is where they make their money. These news entities would not even entertain hosting a website if it was not driven by the advertising that pays for the sites.

Imagine ArtPrize-like coverage for other issues

Since it is painfully clear that local media coverage of ArtPrize has been all ArtPrize all the time, lets turn our attention to what this might look like with other issues of import to the local community.

A month from now there will be elections for local political office and several ballot proposals. According to the Kent County Clerk’s office, there are 45 candidates running for local office in Grand Rapids and other communities in Kent County. Imagine how what it would look like over the next few weeks if the local news media paid as much attention to the candidates, people who will make decisions that impact our lives everyday, as they have to ArtPrize.

There could be lead stories on the TV stations everyday with details about the candidates and particularly about the incumbents and what their voting records have meant for the people thus far. The GR Press could run front-page stories that featured in-depth analysis of the candidates and the issues they face with current budget problems, unemployment and sustainability efforts. Would this type of coverage translate into more people showing up at the polls on November 3? We will probably never know, since the coverage of local elections that we have documented over the past 10 years has been abysmal.

Imagine if the local news media was reporting on the lives of people, which number in the thousands in Kent County, who have lost jobs or are about to lose their unemployment benefits. How would we all perceive what is going on in our community if we were made aware of in detail the hardships that these people face?

The same could be said about the thousands of Kent County residents that currently have no health care insurance. Imagine if these thousands of people who are at greater risk of disease and suffering because they can’t afford health care got the same attention as the thousands of paper airplanes that kind of floated down to the streets of Grand Rapids. How would this type of coverage how we view our community?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Vance permalink
    October 1, 2009 4:31 pm

    I think the next healthcare reform should include a requirement that we can vote on who gets it. Maybe we should vote for who gets a job. It will be like the old “Queen for a Day” TV show, and people can sign up to be in a studio audience for the express purpose of voting for which person gets healhcare or a job. The associated PR and advertising and media coverage would be sensational and do great things for the economy, not to mention a healthcare industry that would certainly benefit from people who have to act the sickest to get any care at all.

    Just look at what the current trends in celebrity and televised talent programs have done for the culture and for our Artistic sensibilities! No need to include Arts education in traditional schooling, our ideas about what is good and transformative in art and which art represents the next best step forward for the evolution of the integrated mind of the individual and collective human species would be decided by popular votes in a televison studio, in the press and radio.

    I’m so excited I could go out and get a really fashionable disease, or have all my chest hair removed!!!

  2. October 1, 2009 4:35 pm

    Bob, I can always count on you to have good insights into these things. Thanks for the comments and your biting humor on this whole thing. Bet you wished you were back in Grand Rapids now don’t you?

  3. Kim Dabbs permalink
    October 1, 2009 4:37 pm

    Dear GRIID,

    I appreciate all of your information about media literacy and equality from a local and national perspective. I would like to add to this report thought, that we as a community should not place the events of ArtPrize or lessen the impact that creativity and innovation have on our communities.

    As reported by Americans for the Arts in economic terms:

    • Arts organizations are responsible businesses, employers, and consumers. Spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations—only a fraction of the total arts and entertainment industry—was an estimated $63.1 billion in fiscal 2005, and leveraged an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by arts audiences. This $166.2 billion in total economic activity supports 5.7 million FTE
    jobs and generates $29.6 billion in government revenue annually.
    • From large urban cities to small rural towns, this research shows that the nonprofit arts are an economically sound investment. They attract audiences, spur business development, support jobs, and generate government revenue. Locally, as well as nationally, the arts mean business.
    • The arts are a growth industry. In five years, the economic activity of nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences grew nearly 24 percent from $134 billion in 2000 to $166.2 billion (11 percent when adjusted for inflation).

    We know that the issues you speak about also effect those reported in the above numbers in local arts organizations, artists working without healthcare, and the arts related businesses that have laid off thousands, now a figure in your unemployment data.

    The arts are always a way of meaningful expression, communication and a way to bridge understanding. While the mass-marketing of the artprize event may be seen as a commercial venture, the gathering of thousands of individuals, exploring themes of race, culture, creativity, and yes, even thousands of paper airplanes, can be an opportunity for dialog on difficult issues, instead of a newly met nemesis.

    I hope that Grand Rapids uses this opportunity for communication in the arts to leverage greater and broader conversations on “Building Community.”

    -Kim Dabbs

  4. October 1, 2009 4:49 pm

    Kim, thanks for your comments and I fully agree with you about the role that art can play in the vitality of any community. The point I was making in the recent post is that other issues of importance do not get anywhere near the level of coverage that ArtPrize has and that is detrimental to the community. If the same amount of coverage to issues like local elections, racial justice, environmental sustainability, anti-poverty work, as has been applied to ArtPrize, how might that impact our communities?

  5. Bob Vance permalink
    October 1, 2009 5:06 pm

    “The Arts are a growth Industry”

    Is that a good thing?

    The idea that “growth” is inherently good in a world in which it is becoming painfully and in some ways fearsomely obvious that the adherence to systems that depend on or idealize growth as a central paradigm and structure are largely responsible for the disturbing inability of the world’s leadership to come to terms with and take action against climate change.

    As it applies to Art: can we say that as Art gets bigger it gets better? Is the growth of a haiku poem a good thing? Would Emily Dickinson’s poetry have benefitted from more “growth”? Or is the fact that they are small, and/or their audiences, in the time that they were composed, were very limited indeed, a part of why they work and how they reflect the genius of the age and of the artist, and of the person who is moved by them?

    I am not so sure a growth mentality is an across-the-board positive thing when it comes to Art. Perhaps we should instead have a focus on meaning, not growth, and understand that not all growth has positive impact and meaning…. perhaps a focus on the understanding and impact of Art, as opposed to its growth, would be a more effective thing for the sake of cultivating creative minds and cultures in which Art would not have to generate capital to be considered viable and important, but its ability to transform in the smallest but most integrated ways would rise to the forefront of why we want to have Art in our lives.

    Not because it pays, but because it gives us a reason to be here, a reason for why we are here. This is not something that can be measured in capital.

  6. Kim Dabbs permalink
    October 1, 2009 5:14 pm

    Thank you both for your thoughtful responses.

    I hope that the arts can aid in the dialog of all of key issues you touched upon. I also think that the growth of the sector is a good thing when in relationship to accessibility. While the traditional arts successes cannot be measured the way other things can on the aesthetic side, the accessibility to those experiences and to the haiku, the sculpture, the music, the film, are incredibly important and need the growth we are talking about.

  7. Peter Ruark permalink
    October 1, 2009 5:29 pm

    Good discussion here. Everyone appears to agree that discussions of art do have a place in the media, but I agree with Jeff’s assertion that, put in context, a lot of other important community issues are getting shut out due to the *quanitity* of ArtPrize coverage. I have a small comment to add about the *quality* of the coverage. Based on what Jeff wrote (and I am not in the GR Press media market so I am relying solely on this), it sounds like the most extravagant spectacles garnered a disproportionate amount of coverage. The airplane drop got covered ad nauseum, day after day.

    Bigger is better? The flashier, the more artistic? This treatment by the media undercuts what is ostensibly the community value of ArtPrize. Like so much else in society, it rewards those who “speak loudest” rather than those who challenge us to think. It also promotes winners in what is ostensibly a “democratic” contest. So in the end, the other community issues aren’t even being pushed out by discussions and promotions of “art,” but as usual by the latest entertainment. Nothing new here, but sad.

  8. tommyallenart permalink
    October 1, 2009 6:13 pm

    Many of the entries that have moved me the most at ArtPrize have been ones that live below the surface and off the beaten path. They are often missed but they are a part of the competition. And for this I celebrate their inclusion.

    The fact that an open forum event is happening here is why I chose to get in with both feet.

    It has been an amazing ride and while not perfect I think there is reason to have even great hope the future events will evolve as more and more people embrace the dialogue that art creates. This dialogue here is a part of the vital conversation.

    I do love that while you are correct that the arts did get front page, think of all the art that has moved you and how over time it has always for the most part been buried. Rarely do the arts get this type of press.

    Please hear me that the issues of Health Care and our elections are important but so is the dialogue and brining us out off our couches to meet so many diverse people.

    I have no doubt the reason I ended up in the top 25 is because I chose to make my voice heard on my piece. It was necessary to do what I did and in doing so I met some many people in the process.

    One last thing, as one who deliberately chose my restaurant venue (and not just for great tapas and sangria) I was moved by the crowds who came out over the past 8 days shattering records of attendance and money spent. This is a HUGE SCORE!

    Please don’t miss the fact that it was not a sporting event, a political rally or even entertainment singer that brought the masses to the door steps of our local businesses. It was Art and for that I will I am most proud. For once in my life I have a quantifiable example of how the arts is truly good business…and not just decorum.

    Ok, back on my head….peace.

    Thanks for encouraging dialogue, Jeff. Griid is vital. Griid lock, not so much.

  9. October 1, 2009 7:45 pm

    When I saw the footage of the 20,000 people filling the streets of Grand Rapids for the Rob Bliss Art Prize event, all I could think of is how great it would be if 20,000 people from Grand Rapids showed up to protest the occupation of Iraq/Afghanistan or in support of health care for everyone. Knowing that the entire Art Prize thing is hyped by the local media to no end helps to explain why so many showed up but I have to think too that people just don’t give a damn about the issues that really effect their lives. They’d rather be entertained. A good test of this theory would be to have Rob Bliss put together an event to promote Medicare for all and see just how many people show up.

  10. October 1, 2009 8:11 pm

    I grew up on West Fulton Street in GR. I went to GVSU, produced documentary, narrative, and experimental programs for years at GRTV and the Community Media Center, actually started my media career at WYCE radio when it was still on Clyde Park and 28th Street…I’ve lived elsewhere for many years now, and my opinion of ArtPrize from afar is very mixed.

    While the sheer spectacle of the artwork being displayed in a dense downtown area is exciting, and the opportunity for artists is lovely with such a marketing machine behind it (DeVos $), something doesn’t seem right where the actual voting element comes into it. With high cash awards at stake, should it really come down to which artists have the most email/text, multi-level marketing trees at their disposal and/or connections to GR property owners who host some of the art?

    The paper airplane thing? Not impressed. Is this really just about spectacle for spectacle sake? Is it about an influx of crowds to consume more food and drink downtown? Then call it “Grand Rapids Spectacle”, or “Grand Rapids Who-Do-You-Know?” and stop pretending it’s about promoting real artists, who are used as a backdrop to legitimize the concept.

    Cheers to all the artists though, especially those who put thought, time and originality into their pieces. And I’m sure it’s been fun for a lot of people and many artists who are happy their work was seen. But the voting thing is fundamentally flawed and unfair. ArtPrize #1 seems really to be a reality show unto itself, with the basic sad human premise of: Throw wads of money on ground, see what people will do to get it. Hey, maybe that’ll be my entry for next year. Just have to inherit a crapload of cash and reserve the satellite.

  11. Bob Vance permalink
    October 1, 2009 9:27 pm

    Hmmm. I’m still unconvinced that “Growth” is the best way to provide accessibility to the arts. In many ways the push for a bigger, more inclusive art experience by its very nature changes the creative process and the experience of the art that is produced.

    I also reject the idea that bigger is better and growth is a necessity for some art if not for others. I worked in the little Bijou Theatre in Eastown in the early eighties and have yet to have as satisfying an experience in a movie theatre as I did, repeatedly, there. Same is true for live theatre. As much as I have enjoyed the big productions like Les Miserable and others, my experiences in little experimental black box theatres convince me always that the real work in theatre is being done in these little actor/writer focused venues.

    To extend the capitalist mantra of growth to how people are able to find art and appreciate it also only continues to minimize the way a good, democratically applied, and early arts education can introduce these themes into people’s lives without the capilista hype and help them carry through their lives how Art is crucial to people’s awareness of meaning and life’s essential quality. People have always had a unique way of finding the small and off the beaten bath venues, the “under the radar”, and then proclaim them to be the next most authentic “movement” and start to apply capitalist growth practices to them…. soon to diminish the capacity of that movement to be much more than a caricature of its self. And so the Art seekers, communities and movements move on to the next little venue where the real work is being done.

    Small quiet gifts that promote and support communities of artists without sacrificing their essential qualities might be a better way to promote Arts than these big splashy gestures that only promote Art and the art that is produced through them as the next fad and a great way to make bucks.

  12. Kim Dabbs permalink
    October 1, 2009 10:51 pm

    I respectfully disagree. I believe arts experiences are for everyone and that providing accessibility to the arts for all people is a responsibility we have as a community. Growth does not have to mean “Commercial”. I know many small arts organizations who would love their projects to reach a broader audience so that their community can experience the same quality arts experiences as others have. Together we can all advocate for a foundation of arts education for all students and encourage creativity and creative conversations for everyone.

  13. Kate Wheeler permalink
    October 2, 2009 2:35 am

    I just wanted to make a couple of comments to individuals in this thread, as I expressed my overall feelings about ArtPrize as a comment to a previous post:

    To Kim Dabbs: I agree that art is for everyone. But there’s a big difference between making art accessible and making it into a reality show-popularity contest-cash cow for downtown businesses-free for all. And there’s also a big difference, in my opinion, in art that’s created out of individual expression and art that’s created, as some (not all) of the works in this contest appear to have been, as attention-getting, vote-grabbing entertainment. Just look at the list of the top 10 winners and see how bigger, brighter, and “fun” has won out in some cases over more thoughtful and substantive work.

    Emily Dickinson wouldn’t have stood a chance in this event–unless she distributed her small and lovely poems tied to helium balloons from a Loch-Ness-shaped dirigible launched off the top of the Amway Grand Plaza.

    As a resident of this city, the concerns, at least for me, of ArtPrize are 1) the way that the voting is being handled; 2) the use of this event as a business generator more than an awareness of art itself; and 3) the implications of the source of the prize money, the DeVos family, and how they might specifically profit from this event, both in dollars and influence.

    To Jeff Smith: I agree with you that it’s shocking to see the extent of the ArtPrize coverage compared to coverage on other crucial matters. As a number of your research projects have shown, there is also complete absence of responsible reporting on certain issues and events that aren’t tied to advertisers and profit, but which do deeply concern the community and the world. Our ability to be informed citizens is hobbled with the skewed priorities of the media in this area.

    To Bob Vance: Were you one of the people who used to introduce the movies at the Bijou? I went there in the first couple of years I was in college, before it closed, and I loved it. I still think of the wonderful film experiences I had there, and the personal intros to each movie.

    To Tommy Allen: I thought that the way that you took the mood and imagery of Brassai and updated it into the context of 21st century relationships is really inventive and involving. You have a right to be proud of your work.

  14. Bob Vance permalink
    October 2, 2009 11:18 am

    Actually, for those who remember, the Bijou was two theatres in Eastown for a while… the tiny venue in what was, I think, the Bijou Mall, where movies like “My Dinner with Andre” were enthusiastically shown, and the larger venue down Lake St where, initially, second run movies and late night midnight movies were shown. Then the whole operation got moved to the big venue and we had matinees for kids on weekends (great stuff of the big screen: Wizard of Oz, Captains Courageous, My Friend Flicka and the like) and continued with small, independent and foreign films. I worked in both places and did do the introductions both places. There was a junta of sorts that took the business over about a year and a half before it closed. Sad day. Great job. A guy named Merrill Rodin who had also been one of my professors at Thomas Jefferson College owned and ran the place with the help of John Yoder. Is Donna Reynolds still around town? She was a mainstay of the place and has many stories.

    Art and writing that is sound- and video-bit and produced for short attention spans and only allowed what is merely clever and ha ha funny (with no jab of god) or tricky is, to me, the product of these kinds of prizes and signal the decline of the artistic and creative integrity of the culture that demands them.

    If, by the time you are able to vote in such a contest, your public schools have defunded Arts education to the point of making your Hannah Montana binders and lunch box the most beautiful things you see and talk about every day, then you will fail to be able to see, feel, and/or respond to or make what is authentic in art.

    The same people, artists, who have always been left behind by these exercises in the ego display of wealthy benefactors’ self congratulatory and lucrative machinations, will again be left scrounging for support for their endeavors. And though artists are resilient as hell, as is the real stuff, it is a shame the real stuff will be happening and be lauded in some other community, some other country, in some other way, than this one. Take a gander at the arts in Spain… or Canada.

    Hell… you WILL make money from it… so its not all bad, and as that was the aim of the people who put up the money to get it started, I guess it’s a great success. Congrats! Honestly, I have nothing against money. But let’s call a horse a horse and stop trying to make it a Unicorn.

  15. October 2, 2009 12:06 pm

    I am still chuckling as I write this…A Unicorn.


    I think we are aligned closer in thought that you believe. Once again, I am speaking about the arts in a greater context than just ArtPrize. I realize that Grand Rapids is consumed with the events surrounding this new project. It sounds like that there has been quite a discourse on the quality and quantity of substantive art pieces throughout the region. I haven’t seen the ArtPrize venues or artwork to put in my two cents that way.

    I appreciate and support your advocacy of arts education. Recently, we held a statewide arts education policy forum to address and take action on issues throughout Michigan that are leaving thousands of Michigan students without access to quality arts instruction. As we move forward this year, we are looking towards building a stronger coalition to create systemic change in our public education system and how they deliver equitable arts education to ALL.

    Our conversation has been about “growth” and I believe that you perceived my reference to growth as one of “commercialism” and I believe that my talk about growth has been about community arts, arts education and access to all in a broad sense, not an ArtPrize sense.

    I rarely post on threads like this, and I have been so pleasantly surprised at how engaging this has been. Thank you for your thoughts and I will be chuckling to myself this morning…A Unicorn. Ha!

    Kim Dabbs
    Executive Director, Michigan Youth Arts

  16. Bob Vance permalink
    October 2, 2009 6:00 pm

    cool. Thanks for the clarification, Kim.

  17. Bob Vance permalink
    October 3, 2009 5:54 am

    Perhaps while speaking about what we want Art to do and how we want to influence and be influenced by Art we should mind how we speak about it and take care to dissociate it from failing capitalist trends that also fail Art when it is compelled to adhere to and assimilate in the culture only in a relationship to the destructive aspects, the boom and mostly bust, of the Growth Paradigm: we might talk about how Art moves us and the world, not how we want it to be a part of Growth or be a catalyst for Growth; speak about what we want to Move in Art, where we want to Move Art, and what we Art to Move in us and others, not how we want Art to be a part of Growth or influence the Growth around us.

    Growth tends to be self limited and implies a single direction as well as periods of stasis and even death or an end. Movement is less singular, multi-dimensional, implies a continuum that may move through ends or death and incorporate them as opposed to stopping with them.

    I swear this is my last post on this!

  18. stelle slootmaker permalink
    October 4, 2009 1:57 pm

    surprise surprise… 13 of the 14 faces of those involved with the top ten art prize finalists shown in the GR Press this morning are white males (the 14th a white female).

  19. Jeff Smith permalink*
    October 4, 2009 3:52 pm

    Stelle, I think that is an important observation, although I am not surprised about the outcome. What does the whole ArtPrize process say about who has access to make art in a competition format that requires an entry fee? I was also discussing racial dynamics with some people after going to the Rob Bliss paper airplane event. From where I was standing the crowd that was watching and those walking up to the fringe of Monroe Center (east) the crowd was overwhelmingly White. So it seems that race and gender issues are part of the ArtPrize phenomenon, although I haven’t seen much discussion around these themes, so thanks again for your comments.


  1. Counting the Vote Coverage: ArtPrize vs Local Elections « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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