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Critical discussion of ArtPrize raises concerns about art, artists and community

September 27, 2010

On Saturday, 21 area folks, many from the arts community, gathered at The Bloom Collective for a potluck/discussion, ArtPrize: Open Competition? Or Capitalist Casino?

Of the many discussions The Bloom has hosted, this was the first where participants voiced fears over remaining anonymous. Because of these concerns, the discussion was not recorded and some comments reported are not sourced.

The discussion opened with this quote from Signal: 01, A Journal of International Political Graphics & Culture: “The production of art and culture does not happen in a vacuum. It is not a neutral process. We don’t ask the question of whether culture should be instrumentalized towards political goals, the economic and social conditions we exist under marshal all material cultural towards the maintenance of things the way they are. The question that we need to ask is whether our cultural production is used to uphold the massive levels of inequality that exist across the globe, or to challenge capitalism, statecraft, patriarchy, and all the systems used to produce and reproduce that disparity.”

ArtPrize as Empire

ArtPrize is not simply a cultural production. Its parameters are created and controlled by a self-selected elite. One artist described ArtPrize as colonizing Grand Rapids artists, venues and neighborhoods. In response, another said that ArtPrize reminded them of an old cartoon where the characters lived inside of a video game. When someone turned the game on, a giant cone descended and any characters caught within were forced to take part in the game. “The top-down aspect is the biggest problem,” he said.

Two people shared examples from 2009’s ArtPrize. Representatives from the event visited their venues some months prior to the event. They were told not to schedule anything during the dates that ArtPrize was going to happen—but not given any details about what ArtPrize was.

Heartside’s street people and homeless persons are assigned a different role. Police stopped by agencies serving this population to tell them to warn their clients that their presence on the streets during ArtPrize would not be tolerated. Seating in the Cherry Street pocket park was partially eliminated to discourage street people from gathering there.

“It’s about property values. ArtPrize is importing capital, getting consumers interested in moving in and developing the area in a way that marginalizes the working class people in Heartside,” another participant said. “When rich white people come into Grand Rapids they don’t want to see the black people.”

Indeed, Heartside and its neighbors to the south have been targeted for gentrification as is evidenced by Grand Action’s Urban Market project and the Wealthy Jefferson Development Initiative, two projects steaming ahead without input from the people living in the neighborhood.

The ArtPrize Color Pallet

Just how white is ArtPrize? Well, no black faces were among last year’s chosen winners; the bulk of folks attending the event seem to be of the paler persuasion; and, at least one of last year’s African American venues and entries was left off the ArtPrize map not once, but every time it was printed in the Grand Rapids Press.

“ArtPrize is for white people to come to have a lot of fun and not have to deal with black people. It is part of a conservative movement that is racially motivated,” the artist said. “I opened up my venue . . .  white families that came up to my loft would take three steps into my space and run out. They literally flew back down the hallway. This happened repeatedly. Those are the dynamics in this city and I am trying to reverse them. Frederick Douglas said that until America deals with the issue of race, nothing van be fixed. Race is going to have to be a part of ArtPrize. Get some black people involved.”

Art or Entertainment?

ArtPrize does make art accessible to the general public, albeit through the non-stop hype produced for the event by local media. While some entries do tackle social issues, these are few and far between—and the subject of negative comments, according to one artist present. Why the negative reactions? Perhaps because people have been cajoled into perceiving the event as pure entertainment. Casting art in this role takes away its power to challenge political and social issues.

Printmaker Alynn Guerra grew up in Mexico where the general public sees art as more than decoration. “ArtPrize perpetuates society looking at art as something that is just beautiful, that attracts. Art is more than decoration. Art has purpose. It’s evident that most artists who support themselves with their art are starving in this society. They have to work another job,” she said. “Why isn’t our community supporting us in the same way it supports other professions? How come no one is questioning why artists can’t come up with projects like these ourselves? Why does it have to come from the government and private sector, from the top not the bottom?”

Artist Brett Colley voiced similar concerns. “Much art is not suited for ArtPrize,” he said.  Two of his students working on ArtPrize entries were asked to change their work by the venue. Two others who presented challenging work received hate mail. He also cited the lack of opportunity for critical discourse during the event.

Another artist said, “ArtPrize has not managed to make art more visible. The eyes of the world were on us. What the world saw was work that didn’t deserve the attention. The really amazing artists (in Grand Rapids) were not seen. . . I don’t think it’s doing a damn thing for artists.”

Who’s working? Who’s getting paid?

Many voiced concern with ArtPrize’s use of free labor—volunteer labor during the event and the countless artist hours poured into creating the works.  Gallery owners and art educators are left out of the financial equation but expected to take part. While flyers for an upcoming anti-war march were torn down from public utility poles, ArtPrize flyers were welcome. This brings up the issue of public space.  “Why does ArtPrize get to usurp all this public space and then give it back to us? Their logo shows up on every corner with no license or fees paid,” Colley said. “When art is used as an economic vehicle, who does it serve?”

This zine is available at The Bloom Collective,

The scheduled two-hour discussion carried on for nearly three. A last and very relevant question posed by one participant, “What do people want to do about it?”

One artist encouraged people to get involved with ArtPrize when it achieves
non-profit status. Others suggested making a publication prior to next year’s event.

“We need to form a guerilla art collective, to step outside the system,” another artist said. “to attract people to a counter-voice on the streets rather than what is coming through ArtPrize.”

GRIID has access to a zine, Against ArtPrize, anonymously created and shared at The Bloom event, which takes a critical look at ArtPrize.

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