The Rapidian

Respectful and Sweet: Critical Questions from the Discussion with Tom Eccles

Grid70 Building at Ionia and Oakes

Grid70 Building at Ionia and Oakes /paul wittenbraker

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About the Alternative Arts movement

*The Alternative Arts movement started in the 70's as alternatives to museum and commercial galleries, the two primary institutions of visual art. Such places were often started and run by artists rather than administrators or curators, and they are more flexible in their infrastructure and scheduling which enables them to support more innovative artworks such as installation and performance art. Grand Rapids was involved early in the development of this movement. UICA was a founding member of the National Association of Artists Organizations.

Last Friday, Sept. 25 at 5:15pm, ArtPrize hosted Tom Eccles in an informal discussion at Grid70, the new innovation lab space owned by Rockford Construction and inhabited by innovators from Meijer, Amway, Wolverine World Wide, and Steelcase.

Mr. Eccles was introduced by Jeff Meeuwsen, executive director of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and chief advisor and director of cultural relations of ArtPrize. Many of the ArtPrize staff members were in attendance as was ArtPrize founder, Rick DeVos. The room was packed with at least 50 people in attendance. It didn't appear that there were students in attendance. It mostly seemed like what I would characterize as a business crowd. The assembly was not very diverse nor did they represent a diversity of thinking that is an essential ingredient of innovation in culture and other fields.

Eccles began by discussing his background and career in the arts, which included serving as director and curator at the Public Art Fund, one of the longest running programs in the US focused on public art, and now executive director of Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies, one of the most respected of the very few academic programs focused on educating curators. He reported how impressed he was at the apparent ease with which the city allowed imaginative projects to take place with little bureaucracy or exercise of openly political restraint. He was also impressed by the investment and imagination contributed by the artists.

After a period of affable compliments Mr. Eccles got to his first serious point and said that he was really interested in what those in the local Alternative Arts* scene in town thought of ArtPrize. He repeated his request and asked if anyone from any local organization would like to speak to that. There was a pause to leave room for a reply and people looked around, but there was no reply. It seemed that the cultural seriousness Mr. Eccles might give ArtPrize hinged somewhat on the participation of or even existence of a healthy Alternative Arts sector in this region.

After the non-response to his question, a series of comments were put forth from the audience sharing various positive effects ArtPrize has on children, families, business and the whole city. These culminated in a statement about the inclusiveness of the event and how it represented the inclusiveness of the city. Another attendee “respectfully and sweetly disagreed with that characterization” and went on to express concern about the actual exclusiveness of the event to some sectors of our society. She said that openness was not enough and that there were great disparities in preparation for engaging culture and public life, which are most apparent between people from the city as contrasted with suburban areas.

After this the audience relayed more positive anecdotes about ArtPrize highlighting the inclusiveness represented by the variety of artists and their personal stories of making the work or establishing unique connections through the challenges they faced in realizing their dreams in public. There were also stories of enlightened moments among those in attendance to ArtPrize, which revealed the public's capacity to engage the difficulties of contemporary art. Last year’s winning piece by Ran Ortner was cited as a great work of art proven both by winning the popular vote and confirmed by its prominent position on display in a wine bar.

This discussion led up to the second moment when Mr. Eccles put forth an important comment and question. He said he was beginning to recognize in the discussion that the importance of the event is its value as a local celebration of our local cultural capacities and that maybe we were not concerned about it in terms of the impression it gives about our community to the outside world, nor are we interested in how it fits into the larger conversation in the visual arts.

Again, as with the first difficult question, this was met with no clear response. The crowd momentarily broke into an informal chatter about the question, with many responding in the affirmative - yes it is about us, a smaller group who valued the broader image and engagement, and a few who seemed amused at the problem his comment revealed.

These questions were subtly suggested in the midst of a very polite informal discussion, but represent some key critical aspects of ArtPrize, and the development of our local impression in contrast to the external image and recognition in the broader cultural conversation outside of Grand Rapids.The questions that emerged remain: Where are the Alternative Arts folks, divergent citizens, and critical thinkers? Is there serious cultural discourse happening here or are we presenting inclusive art as a vehicle for business and an all-positive symbol of community? The answers to these questions might help determine the seriousness with which the event is taken by those engaged in the broader cultural conversation beyond Grand Rapids. It is unclear whether this is an aim of ArtPrize or not.

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I think Paul asks an astute question- what exactly is the aim of ArtPrize? If  Rick Devos simply wanted to generate economic business for his familie's hotels and other area restaurants then my hat goes off to him. He succeeded in a brilliant plan. But if he wanted to devise a new type of art competition and dialog about art I'm not so sure he know's what he wants. Then again maybe he does.

Is ArtPrize a referendum against the established art world? Rick say's no but then why does the word "jurying" never leave the mouth ArtPrize when it comes to explaining how artists get selected by the venues. ArtPrize's  explanation of the process  as "matching" is a shell game. And why if ArtPrize is not a referendum against professional knowledge in favor of popular opinion is the popular first prize a whopping $250,000 and the top first prize in painting awarded by a professional judge worth 50 times less at only $5000.

Does ArtPrize want to be part of the real art world or do they want to set a new agenda for populism in the arts? Is ArtPrize's fumbling all just part of  figuring out what it wants to be and working out the kinks. I just don't believe the Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation gave their son $500,000 to be a another Turner Prize. No they want something else out of the mix.

The focus of my concern here is the way the design of ArtPrize sets up the circumstance for dialog. It is evident that there are complex and contentious issues wrapped up in ArtPrize. Maybe the public gains new individual freedom to vote and converse, but when it comes to conversation across pre-existing points of view, everyone is put on the defensive from the start. The role of public institutions (new or old) is to support individuals and lead us in coming together in the process of collectively discerning and establishing the value of our shared public forms.
Innovation requires diversity and inclusiveness, but also a means by which those diverse views can be processed in substantive ways and brought together in their full complexity in the rich context of human interaction. Art and the collective experiencing of art in public have great things to contribute to new social imagination and new discourses. Rather than incentivize that discourse, the crudeness of the vote and the prize might serve to seal off disourse and cause all of the underlying issues to be politely repressed in tense frustration, or re-played out on a grand stage in displays of public missunderstanding.

 Well put Paul. ArtPrize claims to want a dialog but has built a event based on personal taste which is defended as an individual right. To admit you are wrong about a work of art is to deny your own taste. Something most people don't want to do.