Monday, January 30, 2012

Seeing Red: ArtPrize

From left to right: John Powers, Paddy Johnson, Kevin Buist, 13' Jesus

Following a little dust-up on twitter a couple weeks ago, I recorded a long discussion with AFC's Paddy Johnson and Kevin Buist the director of artist relations for ArtPrize, the world's largest single cash award for visual artist ($250,000.00, from a half million dollar overall purse). Today Paddy posted the entire conversation as a series of short contained videos. In the first video Kevin explains how the prize works (about a minute and a half in). I agreed to the discussion, in part, because I knew I'd be speaking to Kevin, someone who is part of the ArtPrize organization; it was my chance to voice my concerns about what should be an important annual international event for the artworld, but is instead something, as an artist, I would feel uneasy taking part in. The free market ethic of ArtPrize makes ensuring economic justice more, not less, important to the competitions success.

As I told Paddy and Kevin, while I have visited Grand Rapids to visit family, I have never attended ArtPrize. So, beyond observing that ArtPrize had a "Jesus Problem", I stayed away from discussing the aesthetic outcomes of the event. My primary concerns were, and are, that the imperfectly realized laissez faire ethic of the competition (the biggest prizes are awarded by means of popular vote), coupled with the enormous size of the purse, makes for an unseemly combination; I described it to Kevin as akin to Marie Antoinette throwing cake from a balcony in order to enjoy watching the free-for-all as the crowd below fights for the crumbs. Because I know that that is not the intention, because Kevin instigated the discussion and he himself is an artist, I went into the discussion hopeful, and remain hopeful. Kevin is clearly someone who cares about artists and wants the organization he works for to be seen as caring about artists. I would like to see Grand Rapids become a regional power within the international art world, and I think that is what they want - why else engage with an artist who called the contest an "vanity show" and "despicable" on twitter? - but to do so they need to make some changes.

If this all seems overly harsh, keep in mind that ArtPrize set out to be, and bills itself, as the world's single largest prize for visual artists. Just by virtue of that fact alone, they should be held to the highest possible standard. But right now ArtPrize falls into the lowest of possible ethical realms the art world has to offer. That is what I was saying when I called ArtPrize "vanity show." These are shows funded by artists and not galleries. It is a practice that is frowned upon - legitimate galleries accept the financial risk of shipping costs, marketing, paying their own rent and gallery staff, etc. ArtPrize doesn't ask their participating venues to do any of these things. The term "vanity" also applies to an industry of commercial galleries that support themselves with group shows where artists are asked to pay an entry fee. ArtPrize doesn't support itself with artists' entry fees, which makes the fact that those fees aren't returned at the end of the competition all the more disturbing. The goal of the ArtPrize is to build community, to educate the public on the value of the arts, but the lesson sent is one of contempt for artists.

As I was careful to explain to Kevin, my point was not to push ArtPrize into becoming like other more conventional art world grants and prizes that are awarded by prestigious juries, but to make the ArtPrize model into something less obviously despicable, while at the same time becoming more consistently itself, after all if the free market works, it should work for everyone, not just artists. The problem is that the only participants involved with ArtPrize who are actually asked to take a financial risk are in fact the artists.

Any contemporary discussion of "public art" has a number attached to it, the "economic impact" that is touted to business groups, politicians, concerned citizens etc. etc., is usually a number measured in the millions. In the case of ArtPrize, the number turns out to be $15.5 million. So we know that the venues that provide the artists space are taken care of. They see an uptick in foot traffic, an in flux in tourist dollars, and also a lasting boost to their real-estate values - community building art support for the arts are real reasons to participate in ArtPrize. If it was a money suck, local businesses would stay away in droves, and they don't. Hundreds of spaces are made available to artists - but that's it. Beyond offering vacant space (something most Midwestern cities have a lot of) for a about 30 hours over a period of a week, venues aren't expected to take any further risks. Artists are expected to transport, install, and attend to their own work.

And although it made Paddy squirm when I pointed it out - jurors are not asked to "take risks" along with the artists. Half of the prizes given out annually at ArtPrize are decided by popular vote, but vetted professionals choose the other half. Unlike the artists, those jurors are paid to attend ArtPrize. They are given an honorarium, their travel and accommodations are provided, and its not absurd to imagine they are treated as VIPs during their stay in Grand Rapids. Paddy squirmed because she lumps herself with the jurors, but while ArtPrize paid to fly her to Grand Rapids this year, she wasn't invited to be juror; she was press. The jurors are, like all jurors, chosen by virtue of being recognized authorities on art, i.e. they teach for a prestigious institution or write for a well-regarded publications. And while Paddy is right to point out that like me she doesn't have healthcare, the most likely jurors would. We can assume they have healthcare and salaries provided by the same institutions that impart them with the prestige ArtPrize is paying to associate itself with.

I point these things out because if the organizers of ArtPrize truly believe in their free market model of arts funding, why not extend to the venues and the jury? Why not award the venue that hosts the winning artists, a series of proportional prizes? The venue that hosts the 1st prize-winner ($250,000.00) should be awarded $25,000.00, the venue that hosts the 2nd place-winner ($75,000.00) should receive $7,500.00 - and so on down the line. This way, venues, like the artists, would have an "incentive" to participate beyond opening the doors to a vacant space between 5PM and 8PM for a week. Right now benign neglect is all that is encouraged by the current ArtPrize model - giving the venues "skin in the game" (as my Republican friends are fond of saying) would give venues an incentive to pick artists they believed in, and therefore, perhaps more willing to support those artist's bid for the prize beyond opening their doors for 3 or 4 hours a day (investing financially the way legitimate galleries do, to offset transportation and other expenses).

I think the worst thing ArtPrize has done is to add a category of juried prizes. This obviously goes against their expressed goal of creating "radically open" competition; of engineering a "social experiment" meant to "reboot" our public discussion of art. All it does is communicate they don't really trust their own free market/grass roots model; that recognizing quality in art requires expert knowledge.

Clearly the organizers of ArtPrize want to be more than an arts and crafts fair with an out-sized purse - but no amount of jury gravitas will give them that. I don't care if Robert Storr, Benjamin Buchloh and Hal Foster show up, because of the structure of the contest the outcome will be the same. The popular vote will be won by something the contemporary art world won't recognize as art - much less good art - and the juried prize will only make that more painfully apparent. A better way to raise the quality of the work, without undermining the popular vote (it's most exciting innovation), is to make the contest fundamentally more attractive to artists - something artists admire. 

ArtPrize bills itself as an "international competition" and the reason Kevin was talking to me is because I got sucked into a conversation of why New Yorkers don't pay attention to ArtPrize. Part of the reason is the quality of the work. That is a negatively reinforcing feedback loop: a weak pool of artists last year is going to discourage first quality artists this year. It may be that ArtPrize can produce, not just a winner that will turn heads internationally, but an event that will draw international attention, but not if they keep on doing what they are doing. I am not a big believer in free markets for culture funding (but I'm not especially convinced by public funding for the arts either), but if the organizers of ArtPrize are, they should put their money where their mouths are. Rather than overlay their "radically open" bottom-up competition with a jury of pointy-headed intellectuals (opening themselves to the charge of "gilding the turd"), they should make a series of proportional prizes for registered "influencers."

Instead of paying a small group of vetted professors and critics to parachute in to Grand Rapids for a day or two days and dispassionately choose what they believe is the best work, why not just offer another set of proportional prizes. The person best able to sway the crowd into choosing the artists they feel should get awards, will them selves win a prize. If Paddy (or anyone else) wants to register as an influencer, travel to Grand Rapids and spends the week working the crowd pushing her favorite works by means of talking to people, handing out fliers, interviews on local radio, tweeting, blogging, or what-have-you, and she manages to get a majority of voters for the 1st prize winner to check her name as having influenced their vote she should win $25,000.00, and again, on-down-the-line.

Right now this is what I see: ArtPrize is a "radically open" that claims to be responsible for $15.5m worth or revenue for Grand Rapids last year. That revenue made possible by the free labor of over 1500 artists. Part of the lesson that ArtPrize could be sending to their community (and the rest of the world), but isn't, is that their social experiment works, and that it works for everyone, artists included. No one should be able to accuse a competition of this size of being a vanity show. It is a slur that is too easy to avoid. And given Kevin's patience and courtesy towards me during our conversation, one I have to believe they want to avoid. They should do what all legitimate arts organizations should do, which is to create a transparent policy for how venues should minimally provide for, or reimburse, participating artists, win or lose, for the expenses associate with transporting, mounting and showing in Grand Rapids for a week, and in exchange give venues the incentive to do so. If the free market works, it should work for everyone, especially the artists.


  1. Appreciated your insight into the issue concerning AP.

  2. I'm not sure why Buist sat thru your whining. I would have told you to build a jesus/jedi lego piece or don’t, but to pack up the brotherhood bullshit and come clean on your own jilted sensibilities.

    NY artists aren’t interested in Artprize because it’s not in NY and doesn’t pay compulsory homage to big city artists –important and self-important--who imagine themselves on the cutting edge of everything. I am sure you are shocked--shocked I tell you—that some group in a region beyond Rye--aka Bumpkinland--is offering a BF prize to any artist willing to gamble the costs of shipping, a flat and a buffet for a week.

    Is Artprize any more of a financial Thunderdome experience than NY? Hardly.
    Your idealized Brooklyn venue enacts an exponential abuse on unicorn/didymus artists with its RISD or Yale MFA cover charge, what to the tune of $50k a year? And then there’s the lifestyle issue. It's a lot cheaper to keep your studio in Tucumcari and spring for shipping to GR annually than to cover monthlies in the Ptolemaic City.

    Ironically, you seem to be trying to channel your inner Powhida by being a bitter, rancorous twat toward an art prize that purposely pulls power from the hands of a social elite and places it within a community. I mean, too bad it’s a land of jesus lovers who vote, but shit, it’s their freakin’ city. That they don’t want to anoint some performance artist ass-wipe re-enacting Waterloo as a coprophiliac’s ball is their choice.

    I gather it sucks if you throw down to be in NY—ARTÉWORLD CENTRAL—and wind up plankton in an elitist pool. One of the few options I suppose is to tolerate the ramen and maître de gigs to accumulate enough street cred to diasporize into the provinces with a fistful of “shook the hand” references with which to impress the locals. I can see where democracy—the big tent version of art appreciation—might compromise such a plan. But hey, don’t take it out on everybody else.

    And finally, if you really are trying to improve Artprize, my advice is quit the aristrocritique snipes:
    Perhaps you should stoop to attend Artprize while visiting relatives, or is that too crass?

    Are there empty buildings in the Midwest, but few in Manhattan? Sure, but don’t gloat.

    And as for the cheap shot --arts and crafts fair… ? You’re being a dick.

  3. OMG, stop the hyperbole. Artprize is not "the lowest of possible ethical realms the art world has to offer." An entry fee and installation costs does not a vanity show make. Vanity shows are defined by those that make most of their money from artist fees as opposed to sales. Artists usually also cover at least part of the marketing expenses.

    By contrast, Artprize offers marketing, publicity, help finding a venue, and the opportunity for an audience larger than most artists could find on their own.

    For the record, I think the idea of influencers is terrible. ArtPrize is plagued with artist who dance for the public to get votes -- the last thing that event needs is more of that ilk. The point of getting critics in is to help the public self educate and it actually works. People of all walks came to the critics panel and it was fantastic.

    As for critics having an easier life than artists, this is an argument that has zero legs. There are five venues in NYC that employ full time art critics. If you're not at one of them you don't have a job unless you work at a university. Guess what? There are both far more galleries to exhibit at in NYC AND artists also get jobs at Universities.

    Anyway, I'm sorry if this sounds harsh but I don't like my position being dismissed as a-typical or insignificant as compared to other workers. We're all in this because we believe in the field and we believe in expression. My experience is not any less relevant than yours.

  4. Hey Paddy, it sounds a little harsh (but not half as harsh as poor Brian. I think he may have poped a vessel). Here's the thing Paddy: not everything is about you. I respect you and see you as a peer and an important voice in our little corner of the art world. I know you work hard, and appreciate that work, thats why I volunteered my time to talk with you on the record, and to help edit the video when you couldn't figure out what to do with that mass of video. You and I are part of the informal economy of an art world (notice I said "an art world" Brian, I appreciate that not only is NYC not the only art world, I understand that it isn't a single art world - that the art world I inhabit is just one small niche within NYC's larger ecology of art worlds).
    Paddy I am critical of ArtPrize. I am proposing they practice their "simple" model of HUGE prize money and "risk" more broadly - if it seems absurd when applied to criticism, perhaps that reflects an absurd aspect of the ArtPrize model - not of criticism.

    1. Hey John,

      I should say from the outset that I really appreciate you taking the time to edit the videos. I think you did a brilliant job and did so even handedly. It represents the conversation exactly as it occurred. I also appreciate that you spent the time you did on the conversation.

      And you're right - there's no reason to focus on judging. Criticism is what I do, so naturally, I'm going to have a lot to say about it, but it's a small part of the conversation. This about artists and finding ways to best meet their needs. I guess I just wish we could talk about ideas that might contribute to what they are doing without throwing the word vanity around.

      I really do think that creating a more robust online component to their show might help. They have a huge number of computer banks at their office. All those computers could host art.

  5. That chip on Brian's shoulder is visible from both the Empire State Building and the Space Needle.

    Yes Brian, we know it is you, because not only are we crack commandos for the New York Art World looking to DOMINATE THE WORLD and suck up every possible $$$$$ destined for the arts and crafts market, we also work for the NSA, CIA and the World Bank and as you would expect we have surveillance resources at our disposal. You are officially on our list buddy.

  6. Hyperbole? Hyperbole is a rich man taking mommy and daddies money and standing on the public stage and declaring that he has organized "the worlds largest art prize" to "reboot the conversation".
    I have been watching this cultural event unfold since it's inception and half the time I don't think they have a clue what the rest of the art world thinks. Regardless of how they try to insist that AP insist a referendum against the art world the fact remains it most undoubtedly was in it's inception. Betsy Devos gave a speech when AP was first announced saying how happy she was that with AP "democracy" was now going to be championed and that the people would get to speak. First there were no juried awards now one is worth a $100,000. What is AP?
    But the more important question is what does it do for artists? Marketing and education Paddy says. Really? Being in AP is good for the resume? Not after AP developed a "Jesus Problem" as John points out.

  7. Brian? Who the f*** is Brian? I'm the lady who made the stained Stigmata...a master at glass thorns.

    I'm glad to see Paddy taking the good rood. Unfortunately, that leaves me with Father Flotsky's plan b: the bad rood.

    For years Danto and co.--meaning you coddled mouthbreathers--stuff Warhol up everybody's aesthetic ass as if it required a post-mortem degree to figure out camp; meanwhile no one wants to give an inch to some Amway Nimwad who sets up a trailer trash art lottery for his town.
    I think you folks have been hoisted with your own petard. So AP makes ridiculous art and draws only believers and swamp healers; why "concern" yourselves Carry Nations? Is it about art activism, really? About fairness, about not-so-Grand Rapids using up and throwing away art talent? Or is this about an NY niche trying to generate a Hirstian spectacle for an ounce of fame or perhaps a little career cold fusion?
    AP is not begging for Big NY Cheese, so why screw with them? They are no more indicative of the "crisis" in art than any major metro gallery. but no, you cry foul.

    If you folks are so worried about hyperbole, why shop so far away? Why not stop shooting whitefish in a barrel and deal with the rabbit breeding biennales in your neck o' the woods?

  8. Come on Brian. Mia lives in California, has a sunny disposition (250k on top of an already successful career will do that for you), while you my friend live in Chicago, tapping bitter missives away on your Apple, and gluing them page by page to the giant boulder on your shoulder. Good luck with that.

  9. I guess it's a Foucauldian matter. You folks can't see in your own constabulary vocabulary, how you--unwittingly I gather--attempt to colonize an art competition, to "professionalize" it, to save it from its "crafty-ness," its fundamentalism, its provincialism, to improve it from its hobbyist degeneration. Then you turn this critique of the bumpkinesque on its head by claiming a "concern" for the exploited crafts-people and a desire to save them from the maws of capitalism. Really?
    And you don't think--in this faulty argument--that you make a little room for yourselves or others like you to benefit?

    C'est ne pas vrai. Vous voulez le beurres et l'argent du beurre...

  10. I hesitate to engage with you because you're so needlessly rude, but you are clearly very smart, well informed, and passionate, so I'll give it a try: I was asked by ArtPrize, through Kevin, their director of artist relations, to share my thoughts on the competition. I felt it was worth spending my time doing, because ArtPrize is important, and I want it to succeed.

    As for what I want for myself, as I told Kevin in the video, I love Grand Rapids, they have a first rate sculpture park, and wonderful museum of art I'd love to show there. If I was invited by a venue there I trusted I would show in ArtPrize - but as it stands I wouldn't put ArtPrize on my resume. I would come back and brag to my friends about having participated in ArtPrize, because no matter how well I was treated by my hypothetical hosts, I would feel ashamed of having participated in an event that I feel treats artists (as a group) poorly.

    Do I want the cake and the butter? Yes, of course I do. Do I want to stand on a balcony over a desperate crowd fighting over crumbs: Non, merci!

  11. That's fair.

    I've been a dite bilious; it's a bad introduction. You perhaps can appreciate the ruttish, rapturish nature of words, ideas, piled high. One can get carried away as trickster (though in my unbridled restraint I kept from labeling you the Dworkin of art bloggers).There is a WIP quality of the discussion that didn't warrant my ferocity, as Twainian as I was trying to be.

    Still, I object to the sensibility side of your argument--where exploited crafters need empathy--but what I hear you saying is you're not convinced either.

    Your Antoinette simile and vanity charge, too, misses the mark for me. I see AP more a gladiatorial contest, a bloodsport watched by the Neros and the masses. It's brutish but there's a perverse honesty to it compared to the system of sophisticated cunning--a la Quatorze's court--in the major metro art world.

    Those would be my points. I could have delivered them more civilly, but then, culture has a funny way of making a quick meal of lightly shaded claims. Art thrives--or at least survives--by shocking, i sometimes think critics could quit with their empty jargon and learn a thing or two.

    Once more, sorry if things were too spirited.