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Other articles by this author
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Art Prize logo over public space in front of Civic Auditorium facade.
"As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure." - John Dewey “Art as Experience” 1934
This quote by the American philosopher John Dewey calls upon us to recognize the inherently political nature of art: To recognize that how we think about art and how we go about structuring it has consequences. How should we institute art so that we maximize what it can do to make our civilization vital? How do we structure it so that we can experience art as public discourse? This kind of thinking can contribute to broadening and deepening the conversation about art.
Below, I focus on two areas of concern for how we are structuring art in ArtPrize and point out how they can be assessed through observation and inquiry in this year's event. An accurate assessment of ArtPrize should be based on a broad sampling of art and a variety of venues.
The Invisible Curators
Who decides what art the public should see? What criteria are used to make those decisions? Who decides how it will be displayed?
Part of the ArtPrize image is that it gives the public direct access to art. ArtPrize is careful to not take on the role of arbiter of taste. Instead, this difficult and consequential task is passed on to the venues that determine their own criteria in selecting and excluding artists. For the process to be transparent, the people who make the decisions and the criteria that were used should be more public. This would be a constructive step in thickening the conversation.
The low visibility of curators hides an important part of the process and the hard work these people do to make the event accessible and powerful for viewers. Curators should be visible as important cultural figures and should be well known and accountable for the decisions that they make on behalf of the public.
If the title “curator” sounds elitist, then lets find another word, but someone is making these decisions. Why not work on the reinvention of curating? Grand Rapids could become known as a hotbed of innovative curators who are particularly connected to their publics. Not elite arbiters of taste, but fellow citizens: a Citizen Curator Corps. They could develop new collaborative methods of generating artworks and displays that grow from diverse ideas and tastes. New ways of presenting art could be forged that are useful and awesome.
Strong competencies in curating and criticism among our citizenry could provide essential leadership in the emergence of a new kind of provincialism: one that takes full advantage of the freedoms of art to make it unique to our context but is careful not to be provincially isolated. A new provincialism would seek out awareness and critical contact outside the region and confidently contribute to those dialogs. Such a development would draw both popular and critical attention from media far and wide, and be good for business.
Making curators visible is an easy structural change to ArtPrize and would be an important step in shifting the structure to one with more potential.
At each venue, notice the curating and ask who the curators are and what their criteria were for selection.
Art, the ready co-branding partner
ArtPrize expands on an innovation that has been developed locally on an organized level for many years: Artists partnering with property owners to publicly display art. We all get to re-imagine the city because of these partnerships.
And don't forget the atmospherics of style. In a marketplace driven by style, there is much to be gained from co-branding with art. The right kind of art is the perfect co-branding partner - attractive and cool but mysterious and abstract, a silent partner whose powers are moldable to enhance a brand or build celebrity cred. Art attracts attention, and that attention can be used.
Look closely at the nature of the affiliations that are made between art and commerce. Is the art used to serve the sponsor's message? Is an artwork’s readiness for co-branding a good criterion for the selection of art for the public? What kinds of art get left out of this conversation?
Keep Dewey's "beauty parlor" in mind when evaluating these venues as viable sites for public discourse. The space of commerce is not fully public space, and public space that is dominated by a logo is a compromised public space.
In traditional cultural institutions, curators and administrators control the balance between the art and sponsor messages. They negotiate the details that acknowledge the sponsor support while supporting the art in fully doing its thing. Curators recognize that they are not only protecting the autonomy of the art, but also securing the space for public discourse. We can innovate, but the responsibilities don’t go away. If art is important then its development and presentation should not be left in such a precarious position.
Look for venues that support their artist partners in fully doing their thing even if it does not fit with the business’s style or marketing goals.
ArtPrize’s has demonstrated a powerful ability to attract and inspire the people to come out and engage the open possibilities of art. What is unclear is where the support will emerge for a thickening of a critical public dialogue necessary to convert that investment into cultural capital that accrues to the public. To be viable, such a dialogue needs to exist outside of the ArtPrize brand and have a comparably visible public image.
I first saw the Dewey quote painted in large type on a public art project made by Siah Armajani in the early '80s. His work is part of a shift on the part of artists to directly address art in public through innovations in the use of public space and, more recently, through open interactive and social projects. Thinkers from disciplines ranging from sociology, geography, philosophy and many other fields have engaged issues of public life, public space, and democracy and have developed dynamic and useful ideas. These histories and innovations could be drawn on more directly in the development and analysis of ArtPrize and our broader structuring of art.
There is much for the society to gain through a robust public culture. Inquiring about the invisible curators, and the problems with co-branding are good places to start.
Paul Wittenbraker is an artist and educator. He was executive director of UICA and is currently an associate professor of art at Grand Valley State University. He has served on boards including the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids and the National Association of Artists Organizations. In 1999, he started Civic Studio, which uses visual art to investigate public life in specific contexts. Civic Studio is now part of the Visual Studies studio major in the Art and Design Department at GVSU.