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Art and dying cities: What does “Top Ten” really mean?

Art and Dying Cities: two issues Grand Rapids has recently tackled, between the Top Ten lists of ArtPrize and Newsweek. In this article, I ask the question: How do Top Ten lists come to be and what are they really saying?
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Other debates about ArtPrize....

-Do you think voters become more critical about art AFTER the first round of voting ends? If so, why aren't they BEFORE the first round ends?

-Is deciding the best piece of art the same as deciding your favorite? Is deciding the best piece of art the same as deciding what should win $250,000? Why or why not?

ArtPrize: This event opens many cans of worms for me from the nature of art (and craft) to the value of success. I’m questioning the concept and the nature of the Top Ten. In this article, I ask the question: How do Top Ten lists come to be, and what do they really mean?

We see Top Ten lists all the time, from the “Top Ten Happiest Places in the World” to the sillier “Top Ten” by David Letterman. Letterman’s list is a (mostly) harmless platform for comedy, but most Top Ten Lists are based on statistics: they seem to help us sort out the significance of things.

When I think about the recent release of the Top Ten works of art from Grand Rapids' art contest ArtPrize, I can’t help but have the same reaction I did when I heard Grand Rapids was listed as one of the Top Ten Dying Cities in Newsweek. I asked myself, is Grand Rapids really a dying city? Are the Top Ten pieces in ArtPrize really the most notable work? Should I take these announcements at face value? On what conditions? The concepts of art and of dying cities are two topics, based on statistics, that Grand Rapids has tackled, with undoubtedly controversial reactions.

In case you haven’t heard the details about the Dying City article, here’s the gist:

"We used the most recent data from the Census Bureau on every metropolitan area with a population exceeding 100,000 to find the 30 cities that suffered the steepest population decline between 2000 and 2009. Then, in an attempt to look ahead toward the future of these regions, we analyzed demographic changes to find which ones experienced the biggest drop in the number of residents under 18. In this way, we can see which cities may have an even greater population decline ahead due to a shrinking population of young people." (Newsweek)

Newsweek took the highest numbers of population decline and regarded Grand Rapids a “dying city.” Similarly, ArtPrize takes the highest accumulation of votes to determine “winning pieces,” awarded up to $250,000.  

Grand Rapids is one of the Top Ten cities with the steepest population decline. This is fact. We couldn't argue with a Newsweek title that was "Top Cities with population decline and demographic change." The debate is in what makes something dying. How do you define that? Newsweek's definition of dying was population decline and a smaller number of residents under age 18.

The same goes for the basis of the Top Ten of ArtPrize. The Top Ten pieces have the most votes. This is fact. But then comes in the debate of about whether or not the Top Ten should be based on the popular voting system with its time and location restraints, as well as the broader debate about what makes art the best or worth being ranked at the top.

The problem with determining the pulse of a city through population declines and ranking art through popular vote is that we are using one information set from statistical results to make a ranking that is not without subjective and opinionated connotations, such as what’s “best” and “worst.” By using words like "dying" and "bleak,” Newsweek made a sweeping conclusion about our city and its future. Does ArtPrize’s Top Ten List oversimplify what we really deemed the “best art?” It certainly seems that way.

ArtPrize’s Top Ten relies on some main factors: 

1. UNLIMITED VOTING in the first week and UNSELECTIVE VOTING. Basically, if it appeals to you in any way, vote up, and you can vote for as many pieces as you like. This leads directly to the next factor:

2. LOCATION. The highest traffic areas will have the highest numbers of indiscriminate voting. It is statistically impossible for any other pieces to get in the Top Ten.

3. TIME. The time frame drastically limits how much you are able to see, and influences the outcome of the popular vote. Say you only have the time (like thousands of others) to get to the GRAM that first week, you’re going to vote up what you see.

This is the context of the Top Ten that people are beginning to realize.

Using one set of statistics to rank the Top Ten leaves a lot of room to debate other factors that may be overlooked. Many argued that Newsweek overlooked factors that make Grand Rapids a thriving city, the same way many argue that these other factors like time and location are not being weighed into ArtPrize's Top Ten. There could be an entirely different ten based on other statistics (for example: Top Ten with the least amount of votes down, or Top Ten after one month of viewing, or Top Ten after the voters have seen every piece.)

While statistics collect facts, how we interpret and present them contextually makes a huge difference. The conclusions are debatable. You can use facts to back up one perspective, but that same perspective can be contradicted with other statistics. For example, China uses far more energy than the US, so China's carbon footprint is bigger than America's. But China's population is MUCH larger than the U.S.'s, and on an individual level, a Chinese person's carbon footprint is actually much smaller than the US person's. On an individual level, a person from China uses 1/4 the amount of energy as an American. So in this context, China's carbon footprint is smaller than America's. Even then, not everything about each population is factored, and it gets subjective very quickly. The same goes for deciding what makes a city dying. The same goes for deciding what art is best.

While ranking and categorizing is telling to a certain extent, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Let’s keep in mind what the Top Ten lists are saying as well as what they’re not, and why. Grand Rapids is not just a fluctuating population of citizens. Are the Top Ten winning pieces a clear-cut reflection of the public’s feelings about art, and the value of art? If there’s anything I learned from reflecting on Top Ten lists, there is more than meets the eye. Grand Rapids and ArtPrize are witnesses to that.

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Interesting comparisons. If anyone from Newsweek bothered to come to Grand Rapids they would see it's far from a dying city. If ArtPrize would listen to the steady stream of common sense from all corners of the city the would implement changes that would bring more quality pieces to the top ten and to the competition as a whole. Personally I'd like to see the top ten drop altogether. Give people two full weeks to see everything and let the results be a complete surprise.