ArtPrize 2016: Art Fest in the Fiefdom

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Edit: Big news! It melted this cynic’s heart. The “Wounded Warrior Dog” piece won this year’s ArtPrize and the $200,000 prize. I guess people love their dogs.

It’s that time of year again in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mass congestion, packed restaurants and bars, swarms of families and old people roaming around the big, scary city.

Yes everyone, it’s ArtPrize season in Grand Rapids.

What is ArtPrize anyway? On the surface it’s an open, democratic art competition where anyone can enter their work as a way to gain exposure, a potential buyer, or even the grand prize of $200,000. On a slightly deeper level it feels like a publicity stunt for the DeVos and Van Andel families (owners of the Amway corporation, and in the case of DeVos donors to various far-right political organizations).

On the one hand I love ArtPrize. There’s something festive about the buskers, the crowds of people, and the soccer moms drunk on local craft beer. It brings energy and cash to downtown, well, the nicer parts of downtown GR. The part of the city that doesn’t need the help. In a less cynical vein it’s great to see people creating and engaging in art. I’m a huge proponent for the democratization of art, even if the barrier of entry is a $50 fee..

On the other hand it seems like ArtPrize is a PR gig for big business, a chance for them to say, “See? We love people, we love the arts, we love Grand Rapids.” Check out the sponsors, the majority of these companies aren’t exactly local mom ‘n pop shops. It’s good for the smaller businesses, but the problem is the majority of the pieces are in the “safer” (read: wealthier) part of the city. This means people are most likely spending their money at the places that don’t need that extra cash. Circling back to the significant Amway presence, 57 entries are at the DeVos Place Convention Center and 15 entries are at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. In all fairness the Grand Rapids Art Museum had 15 entries, the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art had 16 entries, the Gerald R. Ford Museum had 33 entries, and the Grand Rapids Public Museum had 17 entries. The UICA is on the fringe of that Green Zone, and even then it’s on the corner of spooky Division Avenue. The rest of the venues averaged one to three entries, but most of those venues are walking distance from the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel which is connected to the DeVos Place Convention Center.

I wouldn’t call it conspiratorial, it’s just good business sense, but doesn’t that take something out of the art? “Come, look at the art, eat and drink in conveniently located restaurants. You really shouldn’t drive home, just rent a room at the Amway Grand.”

Even smaller businesses get in on the action. Big Boy charged $10 per car if you planned on using their lot, and Burger King charged $5 to use its lot. I get it, they don’t want to lose customers, and again it’s good business sense, but it seems a bit opportunistic. For a festival that focuses on the People’s art and the community of Grand Rapids, it sure seems like businesses are eager to turn a profit. I could get into a long winded discussion about why they’re so eager to get customers, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I suppose my biggest problem with ArtPrize is that it seems more focused on the spectacle than on the art itself. Fortunately, I did see some great pieces this year.

I talked with one of the men involved with the “Elder Heart” piece outside of the Gerald R. Ford Museum. The message of the work was a less glamorous take on warfare. It highlights the 22 veteran suicides per day as a result of post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. It also makes note of the 2,977 people killed on September 11th, the 6,521 service members killed in the War on Terror, and the 8,030 veterans that commit suicide in one year. He served with the Army Rangers for 20 years, and as a Delta Force operative for 10 years. The one thing he said that summed up the feeling of this piece was, “We put humans in inhuman situations, then expect them to come home and be okay. That just isn’t the case.” It seems doubly true coming from him, a special forces veteran, the boys and girls we can “fire and forget” if necessary. Unfortunately, “Elder Heart” didn’t make it into the finalists. I’m not surprised, it’s more fun to support a war than to go to one or see its ugly aftermath. Besides, as long as you shower them in platitudes when they come home, that’s enough, right?

If you want to know more, check out www.mission22.com

A piece in a similar vein that did make it into the top 20 is “Wounded Warrior Dogs.” It featured a half dozen carved dogs, each bearing one or more horrendous injuries due to combat; prosthetic paws and legs, glass eyes, and even one with a doggie wheelchair. Each carving represented dogs that served in the Pacific Theater in World War II, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, or the War in Afghanistan. I found it in the older part of the Amway Grand’s lobby, and I’m happy to say it seemed to be getting the most attention.

It was refreshing to see art that dealt with concrete, and often unsavory issues that tend to be forgotten or conveniently ignored. “The Butterfly Effect” spoke about the dwindling Monarch butterfly population, “Copper Ghosts” dealt with the difficult lives of 19th century mining towns in the Upper Peninsula, and “Once Upon a Time” is a three-paneled painting covered issues like warmongering, our obsessions with technology, and the growing power of the business elite. Other pieces tackled issues like education, identity, and environmentalism.

In retrospect, it’s both funny and ironic that an art festival created by conservatives wound up featuring art that is so antithetical to the contemporary, conservative ethos. I love it.

That’s not to say everything I saw was good and subversive. There were two prominent works called “Fountain of Tears” and “The Smoke” that promoted anti-smoking. Yes, smoking is bad, but at the same time…yawn. That might have turned some heads when smoking was socially acceptable, but now it’s like saying, “I don’t think we should call black people the ‘N word!'” Very few people are going to disagree with you, and you’re not saying anything new. (“The Smoke” would make a kickass book cover, though.) Another piece, “Color Me Orange – Color Me Kind” dealt with anti-bullying. Michigan does have a bullying problem, , but taking a stand against bullying is nothing earth shattering. It’s sweet though, I’ll give ’em that.

Near the end of my time at ArtPrize I stopped at the Starbucks in the Amway Grand. I needed coffee, and I needed a break. Rather than awkwardly stand at the counter, I decided to strike up a conversation.

I asked the barista if they got busier during ArtPrize. “Definitely, we get a lot more customers this time of year,” she responded.

“Do you think more people come here than to the other coffee shops?”

She shrugged, “Yeah, probably.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Probably because we’re easier. Most people seem like they want to just stay around here, and people know Starbucks. Like, I’m sure a lot of people go to the other places, but if you’re already here, why go somewhere else?”

In a way, that last bit, “If you’re already here, why go somewhere else?” had deeper, darker connotations than I realized. On the micro scale it perfectly symbolizes what happens in Grand Rapids during ArtPrize. Why go beyond Rosa Parks Circle or Monroe Center? You can get food, drinks, and see the art all right there.

It may not apply as much to this year’s art, but in the past a lot of the art reflected the values in West Michigan, and anything controversial or unsettling was taken down. Artist SinGh had his Saddam Hussein piece removed in 2012, someone vandalized a piece about homophobia in 2014, and Nabil Mousa’s protest piece made of burned holy books was banned in 2015. Open and democratic huh?  2016’s finalists are unsurprising and “Emoh” almost feels a tad bit hypocritical. “Yes, yes of course we care about the homeless, just as long as they don’t get in the way of business or gentrification.”

Why get into a different head space when you can be surrounded by art that affirms your worldview? Why not give money to quasi-lords if they share your politics? Why go anywhere else if you can get culture and entertainment right here?

Why leave Grand Rapids at all?

Leave a comment in the comments section, or follow me on Twitter (@ahahnjones) and leave a comment there. If you’re from the area, what do you think?

Thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around.

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