This article is by Brian Sherwin, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
Social entrepreneur Rick DeVos is the founder of ArtPrize -- an international art competition held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. ArtPrize involves over $500,000 in prizes-- as a juried competition it is unique due to the prize money involved and the fact that the public takes part in the jury process alongside a category for traditional juried work as well. Artists involved in the competition negotiate a venue (location) with local exhibitors. From there the works are voted on by the public-- which involves modern networking technology. DeVos has stated that the goal of ArtPrize is to "see what happens when a city becomes a gallery, artists engage directly with the public, and the public has an empowered voice in responding to the art.".
Brian Sherwin: Rick, you are the founder of ArtPrize -- an art competition that involves nearly $500,000. It has been stated that the competition is designed to draw worldwide attention to Grand Rapids through its integration of technology, a diverse group of venues and the creations of hundreds of competitors working in virtually any medium. Can you discuss the early history of ArtPrize? Why did you decide to establish this competition? I assume that there was a great deal of planning before you went public with ArtPrize.
Rick DeVos: I've always been fascinated with art, culture, and events that are built around them. Over the last few years in particular I've had the privilege of going to a lot of great cultural events like the Sundance Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, and SXSW. So, for a few years now I've thought that Grand Rapids is really ripe for putting on this sort of large cultural event.
Grand Rapids has a great history of design and public art, a walkable downtown, a surprisingly large student population, and strong cultural institutions like the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. It was the perfect location for an experiment like ArtPrize.
Initially, due to all the film fest attendance, I thought seriously about putting on a film festival. However, the nature of film festivals (due very much to the nature of the medium) is that they are highly centralized and controlled. You have a small committee that reviews films and accepts them, highly specific kinds of venues and a very rigid screening schedule with capacity, ticketing, and volunteering schedules adding even more layers of complexity and centralized decision-making. So, thinking about how film festivals work, I started to think about what the opposite would look like. What could we do that was extremely open, decentralized, and allowing of a wide variety of media and expressions, not just film? How could we let innovation and creativity happen on the edges instead of trying to plan and control all of it ourselves at the center?
I started to think about how to get a large group of artists interested in showing their work, and a large swath of the public interested in looking at that work, but at the same time go beyond the traditional artist-public relationship of buying and selling that art fairs are built around. Models like X-Prize were particularly interesting because they create a large incentive for attaining a particular goal, which in turn entices a large group of individuals and teams to go after that goal. In going after the prize, the individuals and teams generate lots of value for themselves (and ultimately the world) in the process of creating, and they receive a reward if they win.
It seemed like a pretty straightforward idea to create a very large art prize to gain the attention of a broad cross-section of artists. The trick was how to get the larger public interested and invested in the process instead of just passively wandering through. From there, it was pretty natural to think of having a public vote--public reaction and feedback--decide who the winners of ArtPrize would be. Then to go one step further, we opened up who could host a venue--and thereby opened up curation for the event-- by just setting a border, minimum open hours, and a couple of other basic things. So, really all ArtPrize does is facilitate a relationship between people of the city and artists from all over.
So, all of that said (phew!), the ideas for ArtPrize had been developing for a couple of years prior to us going public and continue to expand at present.
BS: Can you give us a breakdown of the competition and how voting works? Can people vote online or do they have to be present at the Grand Rapids venues? There has been some confusion about that based on the articles I've read over the years.
RD: People have to physically register in Grand Rapids to be able to vote in ArtPrize. We don't want people to exploit this opportunity. ArtPrize is not an opportunity for an individual to create 400 email addresses and vote a corresponding amount of times from their desktop computer in Reno--we're very serious about protecting the integrity of the vote and making sure people are who they say they are.
Once you are registered and we've made sure you're not acting as 50 fictional people simultaneously, you will be able to vote through SMS, mobile platform-specific applications, and the web (mobile and desktop). So you will register in person, see some of the work over a few days, then conceivably go home to New York or Chicago and continue to vote through your desktop browser.
The flow of public voting goes like this--for the first week, you will be able to vote on every piece in ArtPrize, up, down, or neutral. That data will flow back in real time to attendees, and will help people find their way through the experience and discover things that are interesting to them via tools and filters like "these were the top 5 venues last night" and "these are the most polarizing pieces in the last 24 hours" (as somewhat random examples). At the end of the first week, the top 10 pieces will be announced, their slates will be wiped clean, and voting will start again but only within those top 10. At this point, everyone will only get one up vote and one down vote within that top 10, and that will determine the sorting within that group. 1st place receives $250,000, 2nd $100,000, 3rd $50,000, and 4th-10th $7,000.
BS: You have stated that you see the democratic and technological aspects of ArtPrize as a way to "reboot the conversation between artists and the public.". Why do you feel that it is important to connect with the public in this way compared to traditional methods? Would you say that the meshing of technology within the art world is long overdue considering that many galleries are only now exploring the potential of the internet?
RD: I think it's important to use technology to enable conversation about art and directly connect artists to their audiences. It's really about creating an event and a system in which the public has real, tangible, and meaningful reason to give feedback on the art they are seeing within a particular framework (voting). Because of that, artists have a context to actively engage with that public. We're working to create another ecosystem of support for artists, within this broad context of discussion and engagement with all kinds of work.
BS: Would you say that art galleries in general should look into using communication technology in order to attract traffic and promote their artists? A few art museums are starting to explore said technology by offering iPhone applications. Do you think art galleries will eventually move in that same direction?
RD: Absolutely. However, I think the change is deeper than just starting a Twitter account or putting together an iPhone application--the challenge is to start thinking in terms of having and encouraging conversations between the institution, the public, and the artists and fundamentally empowering those participants. It's two-way communication--real engagement--and it's very different set of models and competencies than the broadcaster/gatekeeper model that is so core to industrial age thinking.
That's really the disruptive power of the web, mobile devices, and where technology in general is going. Moving in this direction of thought is unavoidable over time, and the whole art world will have to adapt. How this change of thought manifests itself specifically in models and technologies that are adopted--and how they evolve--is what I'm interested in being a part of and observing and contributing to with ArtPrize.
BS: As you know, there has been some controversy surrounding the competition. Some individuals appear to be wary of the concept of public voting. The main point of criticism focuses on the fact that ArtPrize does not involve a professional curator or jury panel and is instead decided by public vote. Some have stated that critics of ArtPrize are "art world elitists" due to the opinion they have concerning ordinary people voting on art. In fact, a few critics of ArtPrize have stated that the public is not "capable" of voting efficiently on art. What are your thoughts on this? Are the critics of ArtPrize "elitists" in your opinion? Or do you feel that they are simply underestimating the public?
RD: It's not an new debate or new controversy. Pick five influential web projects over the last decade and you'll see a similar debate about professionals vs. the public on almost every one. But it's interesting to note that yes, there is a lot of junk on Flickr, but there's also a lot of unbelievably beautiful work that's now accessible to everyone all over the world. Yes, there is a lot of nonsense on Wikipedia, but there's also more information about more things organized in a cohesive and digestible way than has ever existed before. ArtPrize is trying to do something new with an art event and an art prize, very much in the same spirit as these and other experiments in mass collaboration.
I think that a lot of the criticism of ArtPrize comes from not really understanding what it is, or declaring what it is before it's happened and calling it bad. I think that's funny because it's basically the equivalent of me standing next to a person as they're just setting up their easel to paint a landscape somewhere and screaming "That sucks! That's not going to work! what are you thinking! you're painting with OIL?!?! What a horrible decision!" There is a knee-jerk reaction from some quarters saying that we "don't understand art," we "haven't thought this through," we "just want to have a crass 'American Idol' for art" (never mind that we're clearly not a TV show), we "think art critics and professionals in general are worthless," we "want the most sweet populist work to win," et cetera. All of that misses the point pretty spectacularly.
The public is already "voting" every day. They're coming to gallery openings--or not. They're spending Saturday afternoons at the museum--or not. They're buying work at art fairs--or not. They're giving feedback every single day across the world with their time, attention, money, and word of mouth. ArtPrize is just gathering and organizing that feedback in the setting of an event, within the bounds of a basic framework of rules and processes, then using that feedback to award large prizes. Juried shows utilize professional opinion to screen on the front end what work is shown. Success and feedback is measured by attendance, sales, convincing that particular donor that she should give money to support x, y, or z program or institution, enhanced standing in the art world, or pick another of hundreds of other metrics and measurements.
We don't claim that the art that wins ArtPrize will be better than the winners of any other art prize or even that it will be the best art in the event. We don't claim that juries or curators don't work or that there is no role for them going forward. On the contrary, we are celebrating the role of those professionals both with what we are encouraging venues to do (work with professional curators to create high quality and cohesive experiences with the art they select to show) and what we will be providing during the event in terms of programming and education. The difference though is that these professionals are not going to be filters on the front end, but rather guides and authoritative voices within the experience as it unfolds, championing those artists and pieces that they believe deserve attention and educating receptive audiences as to why.
BS: ArtPrize has been called an "experiment" and a "work in progress". In fact, the rules of the competition have been rather democratic in nature in that they have been revised a few times based on artist feedback. Can you discuss what you have learned so far from the early stages of the first competition? With that in mind, how is ArtPrize different than other projects you have worked on?
RD: As stated before, ArtPrize is a conversation, not a broadcast. Working in that paradigm, it only makes sense to keep an open dialogue about the specifics of the rules. A lot of times the changes end up being clarifications, but sometimes the changes are responses to unique situations that are presented to us. So while we have core ideas and rules that we are committed to (public vote, etc.), there's every reason to be flexible with the other stuff because it's just going to make the entire experience better. It's very much in keeping with the philosophy that we've brought to other projects we've worked on--quick iterations, user feedback, and continuous improvement around a core set of ideas and principles.
BS: My understanding is that ArtPrize is destined to be an annual event. Will each year involve nearly $500,000 in cash or do you plan to increase the amount over time? Will it remain a competition with a strong focus on public voting? Also, have you thought about taking the concept to other cities throughout the United States? Or will the focus always be on Grand Rapids?
RD: ArtPrize is an unfolding work in progress. We look at the participation each year and how it stacks up against our goals of participation, etc.. The prize amounts themselves are one set of variables among many that we could consider adjusting. The specific structure of the public vote and all of the rules and impact of it are another set of variables that we'll be continually looking at. Right now we're very focused on Grand Rapids, because we love it here and believe in the city and the region, but I wouldn't completely rule taking or duplicating at least elements of ArtPrize elsewhere.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about ArtPrize?
RD: I'd just like to continue to encourage everyone involved in creating and showing art to join us. The opportunities are wide open. We're often asked, "What if I want to..." and the answer 99 times out of 100 is, "Yes." People aren't used to how open Artprize is and involvement can happen at many, many different levels--from an artist creating a single piece of work, to hosting a venue (there's a lot of space in Grand Rapids) around a theme or group of artists, to the gallery owner that wants to create a pop-up gallery experience in a vacant building to show work from artists they represent, and on and on. Think about the opportunities long-term, because this thing is only going to get bigger and better.
To folks in the art community that have concerns about professionals vs. the public, come and be our professional voices. Offer your services as curators to venues. Come to ArtPrize and identify the best and most exciting work, and we'll help to make your voice heard to all of the attendees. We come in peace
Take care, Stay true,