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.