Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator living in New York. She is a frequent contributor to the Art21 blog. ArtPrize hired Nicole to chronicle the 2009, 2010, and 2011 events. 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.

Nicole Caruth: So you’re responsible for giving the award for best use of “urban space.” That sounds very broad. How have you defined this for the purposes of ArtPrize. Or maybe it has been defined for you?

Reed Kroloff: Well, we’ve been working to give a definition that would make sense to as broad an audience as possible. And I think it’s probably easiest to say that what we’ve been looking for is work that consciously takes advantage of an urban setting, as opposed to pieces of art that are simply dropped down in an urban environment.

NC: So a sort of site specificity?

RK: Site specificity, or at least intention, or in the art criticism word, ‘intentionality.’ Whatever it is, it was originally conceived — not designed — as something that would really only work in an urban environment. You couldn’t pick it up and move it to somewhere else and go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s fine.‘ These are things that are really consciously created for urban settings. That’s a fairly broad definition because we didn’t want to get so narrow that we kicked everything out. But it really eliminates large numbers of entries that might be responding to an item, but aren’t really responding to the whole urban environment.

I think of the work of the artists/architects Diller and Scofidio, who have for years spent a great deal of time looking at the notion of surveillance or observation as it occurs in many locations, but particularly in cities. They did a series of installations that were so consciously and clearly about being in a city and being watched in that city or looked at that you couldn’t imagine them taking place in any other kind of environment at all. And they took advantage of a site very specifically. They attached themselves to it. They had one piece that literally crawled up and down the sides of buildings or peered in the windows or looked out from. Those sorts of ways, as opposed to sticking something on a lamppost [for instance] that makes it better and more interesting. That’s the distinction we’re trying to draw.

NC: In your opinion, why does an artist’s use of urban space need to be acknowledged in a competition like this?

RK: Well, obviously, the folks at ArtPrize thought that up, and my congratulations to them. Why is it important? Because in this country and around the world the vast, the preponderant majority of people live in cities and experience urban spaces every single day. Urban spaces of one kind or another; successful, unsuccessful, large, small, urban, suburban, anything where we create living environments and working environments that bring lots of people together, that’s the definition in a way of a city and urban habitation. And so little attention is given to making those environments something that is desirable, as opposed to simply accidental. Even when we plan them at the macro level — i.e. streets are going to go here, buildings are going to be set back that amount of space, whatever kinds of particular care is given to it —very rarely does it go beyond the kind of gross scale issues, the larger scale issues. The rest is just left to chance, and almost never — not never — but almost never do we say, ‘We want to think about how to consciously make this place a really enjoyable one,’ versus ‘It’s functional, we’re done, move on.’ This category [the Urban Space Award] allows us to look at a variety of ways that people have attacked that problem, and to my mind, why would you not? We live in cities. They ought to be good places, and for the most part they’re mediocre at best and they go down from there.

NC: So what’s most important in your criteria? Is it physical experience, community engagement, use of materials? Or do you determine this case by case?

RK: In my world view it’s very much situational. I mean, it’s really all of those things. But it can’t be all of those things in all circumstances. What’s important is to pay attention to something other than the programmatic needs of your building or your block or your city plan, depending on the scale at which you’re looking at these things. I just think of the great cities around the world, and, you know, we have a couple of them in the United States. You have to ask yourself what makes them great and what makes it desirable to be there.

So many people will say, ‘Oh, Paris, it’s the most beautiful city.’ I don’t happen to agree with that, but I do agree that Paris is remarkable, and partly because of a very conscious effort to make it that way with careful design guidelines, careful urban planning strategies — a conscious and careful attention paid to the creation of an environment that embraces the arts as part of what goes on there. Whether it’s a piece of art or whether it’s just a very careful set of design guidelines to make sure you get better buildings, landscaping, streets and streetscaping, whichever it is, they do it and they don’t hesitate, as opposed to so many cities in the U.S. where it is never, ever considered. Ever. And if you bring it up, it is shot down immediately as ‘That’s not part of what we do.’ ‘That’s not part of what cities do.’ ‘That’s not the city government’s responsibility.’ ‘That’s not my responsibility as a developer.’ Bullshit. It’s everybody’s responsibility if you want to live in cities that are better than most American cities.

NC: What is one of the best instances of urban planning you’ve seen in recent years and then specifically in Michigan?

RK: Well, actually, one of the best examples of urban design anywhere in the country, though it is incomplete and now degraded, is downtown Detroit. The original Woodward plan for Detroit is beautiful. It’s an 18th – 19th century vision of how a city would work, based on a kind of Parisian interest in Cartesian geometry, which was very popular then. It’s why we have Washington D.C. looking like it does. Detroit’s downtown has a beautiful plan, even if it’s incomplete, even if it’s broken down, even if they ignored half of it, which most cities do. The parts that made it are terrific.

Chicago also has remnants of a beautiful plan, and people comment on it. People walking through Chicago talk about, ‘Wow, that’s nice.’

And look at ArtPrize. In three weeks it has transformed the whole character of this city. Can you have 1,500 pieces of art in every town in a 20-block part of a downtown every year? Probably not, but you can do it once. One person or a group of people can think it up and make it happen, and they did that here in the most unlikely place. Grand Rapids, Michigan, long an art capital of the United States, right? Always on the tip of people’s tongues when they used to think about the important places to go look at art, right? Of course not, and now it is.

NC: What’s most exciting to you about ArtPrize? And more specifically, what’s most exciting in terms of what an event like this does for development of an urban space?

RK: What’s fascinating to me about ArtPrize is how it is a hybrid of several traditions in the art world that you wouldn’t think would naturally go together. That’s one.

Number two, it’s like a giant art street fair. You know, the biggest one you’ve ever been to, and instead of having 160 booths, you have 1,600 individuals plastered all over town. So instead of making a little art ghetto that’s four blocks long and has those God-awful booths, weird food for sale and all that, here, this whole side of the town becomes the booth. What’s characteristic about street art fairs is that they’re accessible. Anybody who can pay the $100.00 for a booth or whatever it is can come and show their art, whether it is a young Picasso or your great-grandmother’s knitting exercise or some sixth grade class in the school around the corner that decided to show their stuff. Completely democratic, absolutely democratic, which is wonderful and American. It’s a little different here, but it’s only very moderately different.

And then the third piece is a high-end contemporary art exhibition. There are pieces all through ArtPrize that would never be in an art fair. Never in a million years, right?

You bring all of those things together and I think what it does is it introduces things that [normally] have audiences that are very particular. Street fairs have the democratic, everybody can access it audience. And then the higher end art exhibitions have art aficionados and appreciators coming to see it. And so a lot of people who would never look at a street fair are actually out there looking at stuff and going, ‘You know, actually, that’s really good’ or ‘That’s terrible.’

And then there are the people who would never darken the doorway of an art museum. I mean, it’s either too intimidating or it’s just boring or there’s a baseball game on or they’ve got to mow their yard. Whatever. Any excuse would be a good excuse not to actually go into an art museum. It’s stuffy and formal and distant and confusing and abstract. You know, all of those sorts of things that make a large part of the population not be interested in high art.

So all of this is thrown into a mixer at ArtPrize, and I don’t know another venue that does that every single year. I know venues that do that occasionally, but this is annually. So it’s just marvelous to me.

Kroloff is Director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum, a principal at jones|kroloff, an international architecture firm, and a nationally known commentator on architecture and urban design.

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