Friday, October 15, 2010

On Community Art Competitions

(From the October 14, 2010 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

During the past month, I have been overwhelmed by art. For the second year in a row Grand Rapids hosted ArtPrize, the phenomenal community activity/art competition that has garnered national and international attention. This year Grand Haven’s downtown decided to piggyback on the effort by offering ArtWalk.

My wife and I made valiant efforts to see as much of the art in both cities as we possibly could. With a smaller number in Grand Haven, we saw all of it. In Grand Rapids, we saw as much of the 1,700 or so pieces as we could, even though we did not see some until after public voting was over.

Some might think that Grand Haven hosting ArtWalk was an unoriginal copy of Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize. Well, success often leads to imitation. The ArtPrize planners didn’t mind. ArtWalk was a natural extension of the art fairs the community has had for years on Washington Street and at the marina, and a further expansion of efforts to lure people downtown in the off-season.

Having participated in the two events, I would say both were successful. It was impressive to see such varied works of art and such an interesting range of subject matters, materials, media, treatments, and messages. I was also impressed by the fact that artists have to be broadly educated to perfect their techniques and convey the messages in their art. Knowledge of metallurgy, chemistry, math, physics, history, sociology and various other disciplines were often necessary for the artist to complete their work.

One advantage of both ArtPrize and ArtWalk was the ability on occasion to talk to the artists about their work. This was the inspiring part. If they weren’t present, the written statements about their work were often compelling. Artists create their art for a variety of reasons, and they are not all ‘professional’ (i.e. full-time self-supporting) artists. A woman who works at Perrigo had a humorous personal story next to the stained glass piece she displayed at the Grand Haven Community Center. A fireman from Boise, Idaho was present to talk about his work displayed in an old building in downtown Grand Rapids. Learning about artists was as interesting as seeing their art.

ArtPrize got more attention than ArtWalk, but that also came with some controversy. An art professor at a school in downtown Grand Rapids was quoted in national media snobbishly suspecting the abilities of the masses to actually select the best art in the ArtPrize competition. Perhaps she has a point that there is a level of expertise in judging art. But she expressed that point of view in a less than artful way. None of my degrees are in art, but I’ve been to MOMA in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and the de Young in San Francisco. I have a decent sense of good art, and I suspect many others do as well. Also, like an amateur regarding an abstract painting, this professor seemed to have missed the point. ArtPrize (and ArtWalk) is about engaging the community and getting people involved with art. Rather than look down her nose at those she assumed were uneducated in art, she could have seized the occasion as a teachable moment. Another professional artist who curates exhibits at the Meijer Gardens did just that—writing guest columns in the Grand Rapids Press that were informative without being pretentious.

Another insult came from the New York Times writer who reviewed ArtPrize. A mostly positive review of the event, he nevertheless had to point out that it was in an “unlikely” place for such an emphasis on art--Grand Rapids. I wonder what he would have said about Grand Haven? It would only seem unlikely to find good art events in Grand Rapids or Grand Haven to someone who knows little to nothing about West Michigan. In the art world, as surely as you mix blue and yellow to get green, the combination of arrogance and ignorance produces a New Yorker.

If I have any criticisms, they have to be around the voting process. In Grand Rapids they make it easy by just asking people to give a thumbs up or down (or nothing) after reviewing a work of art. But with so much art to see, they need to give more than eight days to participate. Also, the artists at busy spots have a distinct advantage than those on the outskirts. In Grand Haven, it was more possible to see all the art, but I wonder if everyone did before voting. Also, while separating the art into categories was nice, it was hard to select just one from each category.

As for the winners, the art professor in Grand Rapids was made to look silly when a drawing by another art professor was selected as top winner. I have to say I was a bit surprised to see photos of the Grand Haven pier and lighthouse win first and second place in photography as well as overall winner for ArtWalk. The compositions were excellent, but the subject matter seems overdone. I know the pier is the iconic symbol of our community, but isn’t it a bit cliché for a photo subject by now? Maybe not. As an artist told me once, “good” art is what people like.

In the end, there were lots of winners. Artists who didn’t take home money got more exposure for their art. Businesses and organizations who displayed art benefited from more awareness of their location. Participants got to see lots of art and get more familiar with their communities.