ArtPrize is a queer sort of gallery show. There is no gallery, for one thing. Nor is there any particular curator. Instead, there is an urban core with a big pot of prize money in the middle of it.
For two weeks every autumn in the West Michigan city of Grand Rapids, more than 1,000 registrants set up their entries in some 175 downtown venues and word is sent out that anyone who cares to do so may swing by to take a look. Any adult may enter a work by registering online, provided he or she finds a venue that agrees to display it. Any facility—from grand hotel to parking lot, from city jail to restaurant—within the three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids may display entries. At the contest’s close, two grand prizes of $200,000, in addition to a variety of smaller prizes, are awarded, with one of the grand prizes elected by the attending and voting public, the other selected by a jury of experts.
The brainchild of Rick DeVos—grandson of Amway founder Richard DeVos and son of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—ArtPrize was an urban experiment launched in 2009 with few expectations. The scale and immediacy of the success came as a surprise: The first weekend, the restaurants ran out of food. The second weekend, the hotels ran out of rooms. By 2017, the ninth annual festival, all such logistical problems appear to be in the past. The official app not only worked but worked well, perhaps benefiting from the continued involvement of chairman DeVos and his tech-startup experience. Although it’s not necessary for the enjoyment of the show, the app does make the experience easier: It maps out the art, with links and images, and only opens voting capabilities once a device provides GPS verification of having been within the ArtPrize district.
ArtPrize sets no restriction on the form of artistic submissions, so strolling around the city center can leave a visitor slightly off-balance. The evaluative gaze that one cultivates at a professionally curated museum exhibit gets unconsciously flicked on with any glance, from storefront to storefront, taking note of a painting, then a sculpture, then a painting, then a Jimmy John’s, then a diorama. One’s head swivels to look for oncoming traffic before crossing the street, and that gaze turns onto a purple and blue mural of an ethereal creature painted upon a parking lot’s wall, a legacy of some previous ArtPrize. And the gaze doesn’t flick off when you look away from the obvious art: It sweeps back across the bricks and limestone stacked into Italianate façades on a neighboring 19th-century commercial block. Downtown Grand Rapids doesn’t just house art during the festival, it becomes art—or, rather, the everyday art of the city is revealed for what it is. The historic buildings more than reward such consideration.
Again, the border between the art and the everyday blurs: Standing in the convention center one will start to examine the artistic message and merits of an advertising banner. Passing by the shop windows on the arts-and-ministries corridor of Division Avenue, one looks back to be struck by a diorama of life-size human sculptures sitting around faux park benches and a modern bus stop. It’s the foreground to a pastel mural conveying historic Grand Rapids: rugged townsfolk felling trees are set over an arched portal displaying a classic low-rise downtown, where motorcars and streetcars run together. The portal is flanked by examples of the fine, austere furniture that built up Grand Rapids from a fur-trapping outpost to an early commercial center.
Then one blinks. The park benches aren’t faux and the human forms aren’t sculptures. The figures at the bus stop are just people waiting for the bus. The loungers on the benches may be here for ArtPrize, but they aren’t art. The painted mural of historic Grand Rapids is indeed art, but it precedes any ArtPrize by half a decade. It was commissioned by the local community development nonprofit Heartside Mainstreet. When art is everywhere, no place’s conventionality is safe.
The quality of the submitted art—and, refreshingly, the politics of the submitted art—range widely. A novice painter’s tribute to police hangs in one building’s street-side window while a hallway in the convention center displays a photorealistic image of women, made with mixed media and dedicated to female empowerment. Down the hall, a photo collage protests white supremacy’s threat to the black body while a mural on the other side of the building honors the 9/11 victims and first responders.
Even though many of the submissions—a substantial minority—are political in some way, they rarely come off as jarring in the way that socially conscious art often does. Among many other idiosyncratic submissions spanning the entire city center, the political pieces feel appropriately situated, even natural. Politics belongs in a civic space, after all, a proposition the local libertarian candidate handing out flyers in Rosa Parks Circle seems to have embraced enthusiastically. It is only when the political totally consumes the civic space that disorder sets in, and here in Grand Rapids such disorder is kept at bay.
While the festival now runs on a $3.5 million annual budget and organizes seed grants and pitch nights to recruit prospective entrants, the core competency and main attraction, the art on display, is purely the product of negotiation between artists and venues.
Longtime Grand Rapidians say that ArtPrize winners are made by word-of-mouth and frequently by acclamation. The grand-prize-winning submissions often are quite large and possess some charismatic quality that keeps their viewership lines growing. An elderly couple reports overhearing the cleaners they now hire to help maintain their home shouting back and forth from room to room about which exhibits they had seen and offering direction on what was not to be missed. In past years, the popular vote has rewarded everything from quilts of unusual size to allegorical carvings of dogs representing and honoring the military’s wounded warriors to a stunning installation that projects classic Islamic designs of the Alhambra through a carved box via interior lighting.
This year, the popular grand prize went to A. Lincoln by Richard Schlatter of Battle Creek, Mich. A faithful replica of Alexander Gardner’s Gettysburg Portrait composed entirely of pennies, the 8-foot-by-12-foot display hung in the lobby of the Amway Grand Plaza, glittering in shades of copper brown and steel-penny gray. It’s not great art, if one is to just come out and be straight about it. But then, it doesn’t have to be.
In his reporting for Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America, Andrew Ferguson chased the American preoccupation with our 16th president from statuary disputes to museum construction to reenactments. Russell Lewis, the chief historian of the Chicago History Museum across Lake Michigan from Grand Rapids, explained that museum’s removal of its longstanding shrine to Lincoln by telling Ferguson, “We’ve been much less interested in the icon, more interested in a Lincoln that’s much more human.” Another museum official explained, “A good exhibit makes people see themselves. People come to places where they see themselves.” The expert jurors of ArtPrize made a similar judgment in awarding the other $200,000 grand prize to a 250-seat community picnic in the city’s Heartside Park, a project aimed at encouraging people to think more about healthy eating and local ingredients. But the picnic had been held on a hot day, so not all the seats were occupied.
Yet the people turned out for A. Lincoln. Ferguson ends his book with the conclusion that Lincoln is still so adored precisely because he is an icon, no matter how many ordinary community trappings historians wrap him in. To be more precise, he is an icon of the nation’s founding propositions of human equality and self-governance, and the existential test those ideas underwent. Statues of and monuments to Lincoln dot the American landscape because of an implicit sense—or hope—that so long as he endures in our memory, so will his nation and its self-government endure.
This year’s ArtPrize voters may have been drawn to the towering representation of the towering president to look Lincoln in the copper eye and seek reassurance of his relevance in their own time of democratic uncertainty. Americans may not have high taste in art, but they insist on their self-governance.