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ArtPrize 2012: Impressions of a first-time viewer

A first-time attendee offers up her experience with ArtPrize 2012.
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I had no idea what to expect when ArtPrize started. Ever since I moved here last November I’d heard the event described in a variety of ways: “It’s like a festival,” “It’s amazing,” “It’s terrifying,” “It’s chaos!”

But I think I always held onto the assumption that people were exaggerating a little bit to promote this unique thing their city did. But it started and I was right there clutching my Rapidian press badge, staring avidly at the art.

And frankly, the display of public art itself is quite something.

I know I stared up at the dude dangling between two buildings as I walked along Monroe Center. I glanced at “Norm”, the dragon in front of Barnes & Thornburg LLP, and the small child in me is obsessed with the life-size T-Rex skeleton outside the Ford Museum.

Once I moved my exploration inside I only became more impressed by the whole situation. I loved the way “Perspective Lifters” changed the entire environment inside MadCap; I have probably gone to the UICA and watched “More or Less” at least ten times now and I could spend hours staring at Alysha Lach’s illustrations at Bitter End.

What nobody could apparently prepare me for was the sheer amount of people who turn up for this event. The mass of people- Rapidians and out-of-towners alike- who filled the streets every day, weekday or not, to look at public art for two and a half weeks continues to astound me.

I remember the first Monday of the event I saw the line that had formed outside the GRAM, and I wanted to call for a time out. I decided I had to tell someone about this so I texted my dad and said something like, “There is a line comparable to lines at Disneyland to get inside the Grand Rapids Art Museum!”

I looked around and didn’t understand why people weren’t stopping in the streets to stare at the spectacle of this line. I wanted to stop passers-by and explain the situation to them.

“People are waiting,” I wanted to say, “to go inside a museum and look at art! They have been waiting outside for the thing to even open!”

Granted, they would have looked at me like I was stupid because this had all happened before.

I don’t understand how ArtPrize isn’t a thing that has been talked about on a broader scale. Yes, the art world knows about it and yes, GQ published an article about it, but that was last month. This thing has been going on for four years- why did I have to move to Grand Rapids to start hearing about it?

Juror Tom Eccles said it best during the shortlist broadcast when he drew attention to the fact that an entire city is repurposed for two weeks to become what is essentially  an enormous art gallery. Why isn’t that national news?

That’s not to say the event doesn’t have its flaws. Of course it does. Nothing is perfect and something on this scale is bound to have a plethora of imperfections, but it is also an evolving event and every year steps are taken to try to lend to the greater success of years to come.

The fact is, and this is probably the criticism I hear the most, not all the art is good. In truth probably the bulk of it isn’t by most people’s standards. But it’s public art. Anyone over 18 with 50 bucks and a drawing can enter. It doesn’t matter that some of it isn’t good.

Most places barely talk about art on a public level. In fact, throughout this country art is increasingly being devalued, underfunded, or considered trivial. It’s an enormous thing that Grand Rapids stops everything for half a month to focus on art and offer the world’s largest monetary ArtPrize for it. So I don’t really care that it’s flawed.

There are some people who think there shouldn’t be a cash prize, but for artists to be able to function on a professional level they need funding, in addition to things like exposure and exhibit experience on their resumes.

People work for money, and the same is true of artists. The difference is the service they provide is being regarded less and less as a service people need.

Even if there were pieces or venues I didn’t like (which there were) I found ArtPrize as an event to be an overwhelmingly encouraging experience. Even though it has been an exhausting few weeks, I’ve also been wishing it wouldn’t end. I have a hard time picturing downtown Grand Rapids with its standard amount of foot traffic or having the GRAM go back to containing more works of art than people at any given moment. More than once I’ve found myself wishing spaces like the SiTE:LAB installation at the old Public Museum building or the gallery loft created at High Five were year-round fixtures rather than temporary venues. 

I find myself feeling sort of protective over the art that participated. Where will it go after this? Can’t it stay here? What will become of “Elephants” now that it has won first place in ArtPrize? What of the parts of it that exist only on the walls of the GRAM? Will Martijn van Wagtendonk have to deconstruct “Song of Lift”? Are the people at SiTE:LAB already in the process of taking everything down?

I don’t know really what normal looks like after ArtPrize. I’ve never experienced anything like that before, and reporting on it meant it sort of took over my life. On the one hand, I woke up this morning and felt less frantic than I’d grown accustomed to feeling lately. And I suppose I can go back to reading for fun without falling asleep two lines in.

But the exhaustion I (and many, many other people) felt was ultimately a fair trade for what we, as a city and as participants in ArtPrize, experienced in return.

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