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Last Friday’s panel “Reflecting the Times: Art & Activism” took me on a trip down memory lane, back to the very first ArtPrize in 2009. A few weeks before it began, I received a phone call inviting me to write for this blog, to contribute a critical outsider perspective on the event. I didn’t fully understand what ArtPrize was at the time but, with my curiosity piqued, I boarded a plane from Brooklyn to Grand Rapids, a city that I had never heard of until then. I walked the streets of downtown for hours and looked at art of all kinds. None of it stuck with me so much as the surrounding scene: throngs of people hunting and hungry for art. I was amazed by what was happening and yet aware that I was the only person of color around almost all of the time.

I returned to ArtPrize the following year and had the same experience until I happened upon a large gathering of black people in Rosa Parks Circle. “Where did they come from?!” I thought. “Are they visiting like me? Is this a concert? A church meeting? A protest?” I wanted answers, so I struck up a conversation with a stranger in the crowd who informed me that it was a meeting of the local NAACP chapter. We chatted a while about the local black population. “So black people actually live in Grand Rapids,” I said jokingly. He laughed. “Sure we do, but not down here.” He pointed off in the distance and spoke of an African American enclave outside the city center. I’ve talked to other Grand Rapidians about this over the years and gotten more of the same: “Grand Rapids has amazing communities, but they’re not here at ArtPrize.”

Painting by John Bankston

ArtPrize has always faced the challenge of local segregation and the difficulties of reaching its neighbors beyond the three square mile boundary of the competition. I can only measure ArtPrize’s current audience diversity anecdotally, but I do see progress. Seven years ago, I couldn’t have imagined some of the experiences I’ve had this year, such as viewing works by the internationally recognized African American artist John Bankston while coincidentally standing next to a black family of five at the Grand Rapids Art Museum; or sitting down in The Hub to listen to an all-black panel of artists and critics address the role of art in contemporary social justice efforts.

“Reflecting the Times: Art & Activism” kicked off with a disclaimer by ARTS.BLACK co-founders Jessica Lynne and Taylor Aldridge, who were compelled to acknowledge the “far right causes and conservative politics” of the DeVos family. (They cited Steve Lambert’s recent op-ed for Creative Time Reports.) Moving right along, they began the discussion by asking panelists to share their individual definitions of activism.

Artist Dread Scott made it a point to distinguish the role of artist from activist, drawing a line between artwork that raises awareness and certain actions or demands to achieve social change. “Activism often has a particular purpose,” he said. “We’re trying to stop, say, murder by police or end mass incarceration. With my art, I’m actually talking about these broader social questions, huge questions confronting humanity.” Art itself is not the fight for a better future, he suggested, but the vehicle for “getting people to think about what’s happening [now]” and what our future could be. Scott spoke of imagining a world where stop-and-frisk, police killings, and “bomb-dropping drones” are no longer concerns. Artist and educator Suhaly Bautista-Carolina also imagines a world where “people would really flourish.”

Dread Scott 

Bautista-Carolina presented her series A Ribbon Around a Bomb, portraits of women of color outdoors in nature. “I use my environmental activism and practice to inspire the work that I create,” she explained. (Neighborhoods of color have often been dumping grounds for hazardous waste that sickens and weakens our communities.) Each of Bautista-Carolina’s photographs is named for the sitter’s self-described power, such as Resilient or Unbreakable. “Our individual strengths are the instruments we employ to fight the discrimination, racism, sexism, poverty and the many other multiple layers of prejudices we face in our communities,” she writes. Black quality of life was a thread throughout the panel discussion: Lynne went on to pose questions about maintaining “mental health” in the face of dead black bodies in recent news media and ways of “grappling with tremendous pain.”

The Fearless Brother Project by Akibang Monroe O’Bryant

I had anticipated (and maybe hoped for) more discussion of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but the panel didn’t dwell on the topic. “I hope that my work is absolutely irrelevant someday,” said Scott. “I don’t want to make work about the next hashtag Black person. We don’t need anymore hashtags.” Scott’s upcoming project, Slave Rebellion Enactment, will restage and reinterpret Louisiana’s German Coast Uprising of 1811—the largest rebellion of enslaved people in American history. An audience member later expressed frustration by what she perceived to be a conversation about times past. In a gentle rebuttal, Scott explained that “the past sets the stage for the present.”

Prior to the Q&A, Lynne and Aldridge referenced a powerful statement from Nina Simone: “At this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everything is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved… How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.” As I suggested during Why These Finalists?, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing more artwork on such issues as race, gun violence, immigration and diversity at ArtPrize Seven. How we live together is at the forefront of public consciousness.

(left) Cesar Conde, called 'The Bang Bang Project' (right) Susan Opton's Soldier from ArtPrize 2014

“Reflecting the Times” seemed important for Grand Rapids, where conversations on activism and race probably don’t occur often in the context of art. For me, however, the program left something to be desired. I craved more emotional charge and even a moment of discomfort; this discussion felt polite and cautious. I also wished for greater recognition of place, for panelists to draw connections between this conversation inside and the content outside, for instance, in photographs by Akibang Monroe O’Bryant, new paintings by Cesar Conde (last year’s winner of the Paul Collins Diversity in Art Award), SiTE:LAB’s community-oriented Rumsey Street Project, or the themes of patriotism and fallen heroes found throughout ArtPrize. Having a local artist on the panel might have helped.

Nevertheless, opening the door to potentially uncomfortable conversations is an important step toward the social equity and change that ArtPrize aims to achieve. Providing platforms for different communities to express their lived experiences, to see their concerns reflected in and about the experience of art, is part of what’s needed to draw a more racially and economically diverse audience. In many ways, I no longer feel alone at ArtPrize. I choose to believe that I am part of an increasingly radical and diverse event. I wonder how ArtPrize will look and feel to me seven years from now?

By Nicole Caruth on