Young Kim, salt & earth, ArtPrize 2009. Photo: Brian Kelly

This morning we announced a big step in the evolution of ArtPrize. We’ve restructured the awards so that the public and juried prize are parallel. There will be two $200,000 Grand Prize winners, one chosen by the public, the other chosen by distinguished art world experts. There will also be public vote and juried versions of four category awards, for a total of eight $20,000 awards. Read the full details here.

I thought I’d take a little time to dig deeper into the reasoning behind this change. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time, so I wanted to share some of that thinking.

When ArtPrize began five years ago, it was an experiment designed to explore several questions. Could a city-wide exhibition of international art come together from the bottom-up, with no central curation? If the winner of the world’s largest art prize were chosen by the general public, what would they select? Would people care enough to participate? And given this radically open approach, would serious artists invest their time and energy?

The answers to each of these questions turned out to be more positive, more surprising, and more fascinating than we could have imagined. The exhibition did self-assemble, the public chose remarkable work, and incredible artists rose to the challenge of turning an experiment into an art phenomenon. We learned many things during the first year, but there are two lessons that have become core attributes of ArtPrize as it has matured from experiment to institution. Those lessons motivate the changes we made today.

The first lesson is that the tension created when the general public is invited to select a prize winner, rather than art insiders, is a positive thing. The conflict between these two approaches to assessing art is unresolvable. It’s not our goal that the general public will change to perfectly mimic the jurors. We’re also not holding our breath that the jurors or other art experts will alter their taste to match what becomes popular with the public. This intellectual and aesthetic conflict is the strength of ArtPrize. It is a friction that creates heat. This heat energizes the production and discussion of art in a way that a traditional competition model does not.

The best artists create productive tensions in their work. An artwork sticks with you when it leaves you with questions that you want to resolve, but cannot. Like Oscar Wilde said, "The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it's dead for you.” An artwork’s ability to embody conflict and wonder is so key, it points to a strange irony, that art institutions rarely aspire to this. The institutions that support and contextualize art don’t usually do so in a way that provokes, challenges, and creates tension in the way we assess and interpret art. They typically leave that to the artists. We believe that art institutions should follow the lead of great artists in taking risks and challenging conventions.

The second enduring lesson is the value of surprise. The first ArtPrize was surprising in many ways, and this is both a blessing and a curse. The trouble with surprises is that when you repeat them they are no longer surprises. As ArtPrize ages, surprises have become features. The only way to institutionalize surprise is to stay nimble, reactive, and open to change.

ArtPrize is a wonderful environment to explore the question of what makes an artwork successful. This exploration happens in conversation and writing, but it also happens in the streets, among the fabric of the city and between people of all walks of life. We realized that the structure of the event needs to reflect the importance of the question of how we approach, assess and engage with works of art. This led us to develop awards that have a parallel structure. The two Grand Prize winners will be two works in competition with each other, but chosen in completely different ways. The four category winners will offer even more direct points of comparison. 

We hope you’ll join us this fall. Be ready to be surprised, we are.

By Kevin Buist on