Nicole Caruth is a freelance writer and curator living in New York and frequent contributor to the Art:21 blog. ArtPrize hired Nicole to chronicle the 2009 event, and decided to bring her back this year. Nicole’s thoughts and opinions are her own and in no way represent an endorsement or objection from ArtPrize toward an individual artist or venue.



Paul Storm, Greeting Card to the World, 2010. Mixed media, 30 × 40 ft.

Greeting Card to the World was the first piece I laid eyes on when I first arrived in downtown Grand Rapids. Ironic, right? An official entry into the Guinness Book of World Records, this sort of Hallmark-cum-Godzilla art (and I use that term loosely) speaks to what is perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of ArtPrize: the attention-hogging Lady Gaga’s of the event who are just out to get attention or only in it to win it. This was briefly addressed during the Wednesday night Speaker Series events when a panelist suggested that more artists have made work for this year’s competition with the sole goal of wowing and winning, a shamefully narrow agenda that drives the bigger-is-better approach to the creative process. And looking at the entries that dominate the top fifty spots of the competition this year, it is obvious that size and visibility continue to influence the popular vote. The good news is that there’s a flicker of hope for a better future demonstrated by this year’s top ten finalists. Dare I say that voting crowds have already learned to look a little deeper?

Now, the differences between the top ten artworks this year and last are subtle. Glowing-eyed spectacles, land animals, and kitsch mosaics are still in the lead. But you also have Salt & Earth (Garden for Patricia) by Young Kim, Lure/Wave, Grand Rapids (Lure/Forest) by Beili Liu, and Cavalry, American Officers, 1921 by Chris LaPorte that are all, at the very least, thoughtful and engaging. With these works in the top ten, the finalist pool has become slightly more diverse in material and form; shows that voters are paying attention to works of art that draw you into a space rather than intrude on yours, and are starting to value works of art that transcend quantitative efforts. Have the masses developed new criterion as a result of last year’s event? Has the participation of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, a centrally located perceived authority on art, influenced this year’s votes? Have criticism and press made voters more cautious or attentive? Or is it just the sheer fact that more people are voting? These are hard if not impossible questions to answer, and we could spend the entire next year speculating. But the mix of budding talents and one hit wonders, excellence and eyesores, in the current top ten suggest to me that ArtPrize audiences have already started to think more critically about art and look beyond the surface of things.

ArtPrize will have to continue for many years if we want to know its real impact on how the masses look at art and decided what is prize-worthy. But a girl can dream. Imagine what the top ten of ArtPrize 2015 might look like if the small differences from this year to last really constitute deepened awareness among voters. The Ryan Spencer Reeds and Mark Wentzels of the competition, underdogs of this year, will overcome the 20-foot kinetic green-eyed barking dog sculpture that I’m predicting for The B.O.B. parking lot next year.

Earlier this week, a local family expressed to me, as many others have, fear that ArtPrize and the city of Grand Rapids is the laughingstock of the art world, because gimmicks continue to rise to the top and are a poor reflection of the city’s talents and ongoing engagement with art. Luckily, the Gaga’s of ArtPrize are small parts of a bigger and better picture though I hope that they will, like a photograph, start to fade with time.

By NicoleC on