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 this year’s 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.

Art professionals have been skeptical of ArtPrize since the beginning, often because of a misconception that curators are excluded from this event. Except curators have always been present. Rather than being rejected, their role has merely been challenged by the public voting system that allows crowds to make decisions about art and define its meaning for themselves. This is what makes ArtPrize revolutionary. The public vote basically tests the authority of an elite or educated few that has long gone unchecked. On the one hand, this empowering of the masses is awesome. On the other, groupthink — be it happening in the art world or on American Idol — will often fail to recognize talent. Sorry to say, this year’s top ten list is a good example of that. While amping up the curatorial voice might not better these results, it can make a difference.

Independent curators Paul Amenta of SiTE:LAB and Kevin Boehm of The Spot have created buzz at this year’s event. Upon visiting their spaces the reasons are plain to see. They have selected superb artwork, articulated an overall vision, and created exhibition spaces that just feel good. Curators don’t just give you stuff to look at, they create experiences. They don’t simply profess their knowledge, they share it through their own creativity. And with any luck, they strike a balance between their own imaginations and that of the artists they exhibit.

SiTE:LAB second floor before.

SiTE:LAB’s space was specifically designed to be a counterpoint to crowded Exhibition Centers and the circus known as The B.O.B. “We could have clearly jam-packed this exhibition with well over 100 artists,” said Amenta. “We only have nine artists in the show. This is big work with a lot of space to view it. We wanted to make sure the work was presented in a way that respects the artists and their work, and also gave large numbers of audience members ability to view that work.” Showing in this 23,000 square-foot dilapidated space are, among others, Alois Kronschlaeger’s gutted elevator-shaft installation Spire that rises up from the basement and beautifully imposes itself on the city skyline; Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s contemplative fossil and mineral collection Disappearances – an eternal journey; and a favorite of mine, Ericka Beckman’s video Tension Building. “We knew we had a special site and the opportunity to do something unique in the context of ArtPrize. We wanted to make this an amazing exhibit and I think we accomplished that. We had no illusions that anyone in here was going to win. That was not our goal.” Early on, Amenta was given the opportunity to show Mia Tavonatti’s top ten mosaic-by-numbers and turned it down in favor of what’s on view at SiTE:LAB today.

Amenta is a known curator around town and has garnered the respect and trust of local art communities. Years before ArtPrize came along, the Kendall College sculpture professor started organizing (wildly successful) one-night exhibitions in empty buildings. This approach is exactly what I had hoped to see more of in this competition: local artists taking over abject or unused spaces and creating their own exhibitions, using ArtPrize as an umbrella to reactivate parts of their city. And so it was disheartening when I overheard Amenta say, “This will be my last ArtPrize.” He is not so much frustrated with the event as he is wounded by it.

“When the [top ten] announcement was made, it was kind of devastating. Again, it is not that we had any hopes someone was going to win from our venue. But my hope was that there would at least be good artworks in that top ten. I didn’t care where they came from. You know, I’m an artist and it personally kind of hurt. The public spoke and if that’s what they want, I’m just not going to be able to deliver that…I don’t see how I can do this again.”

Good curatorial practices have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. To quote one viewer, “I feel like it’s the curators this year who are saving ArtPrize.” In addition to independent types like Amenta are the curators of official Exhibition Centers, including the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Public Museum, and Grand Valley State University. Without them ArtPrize would look drastically different and might be harder to navigate. Jeff Meeuwsen, Executive Director of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art says, “In many ways, the exhibition center concept is working. The centers are necessary sites for launching into the ArtPrize experience and they are showcasing some of the best work, resulting from their investments in curation.” The only downside is a rule that requires them to show no less than 25 entries, which can bring about utter clusterf**k.

When curators take care artists take notice. “For the past two years, having shown in little corners and venues that epitomize the potential problems for an artist in ArtPrize, being curated appropriately with a grouping of other artists of really high caliber is a relief,” says Gregory Oberle whose giant toy viewfinder has delighted visitors to The Spot. “To have the audience and space combine in this really nice [way] has been the best possible relationship I could have hoped for.” Oberle was selected by Kevin Boehm, co-owner of the local Byrneboehm Gallery. Boehm intentionally gathered art for The Spot that looked “completely different” from what you might find at his gallery. Why? “I know this sounds immodest, and I feel funny saying it, but I wanted to impress the academics,” he explained. “I wanted to have people who know art, love art, make art, teach art, to be impressed. Secondly, I feel that I wanted to elevate ArtPrize. I wanted to bring in fine things and develop a collection of things that complemented each other. There was a conscious effort in choosing black and white, figurative, and abstraction that I had in mind right from the beginning.” His diligence is apparent.

The Spot has a sense of rhythm about it, a sort of flow from one object to the next that you don’t typically find at ArtPrize. Boehm’s curatorial philosophy echoes Amenta’s in that he expressed commitment to his artists and respect for their practices. “The artist, in my mind, is first. Without them we would not be standing here. So I did what I could to honor them.” For Boehm this included the smallest of details like decent lighting. “I think curating is going to be important at ArtPrize. But I’m hoping they’ll still look within the Grand Rapids community instead of looking outward, because I think we have the ability here. And I think Midwesterners want to own it.”
Increasing the number of curators involved in ArtPrize is one of many suggestions on how to improve the competition. While the top ten doesn’t reflect my personal taste, I continue to value ArtPrize for allowing everyday people to make choices about art and take the same chances I do as a curator — and I’ve made plenty mistakes. Yet when I look through the top ten, I feel torn. To quote a friend of mine, “I don’t want to believe the general public can get it so wrong.” Maybe this year is just a growing pain, the flat line on a learning curve that has yet to peak. Only time will tell. If nothing else, Amenta and Boehm are to ArtPrize 2011 what Ryan Spencer Reed has for two years been to DeVos Place: a reason to continue creating special awards that acknowledge excellence the masses have failed to see.

By NicoleC on