He Said, She Said: Deconstructing ARTPRIZE 2014

Midland Artists Armin Mersmann & Valerie Allen Discuss the Merits & Detriments of Michigan's Revolutionary Artistic Competition & Gathering

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature,   From Issue 795   By: Robert E Martin

21st August, 2014     0

When it comes to transformational artistic experiences that redefine the way that an artist’s work is disseminated, viewed, and absorbed by the general public, few events in recent memory have proven more successful than the annual ArtPrize exhibition that will be happening for its sixth year in downtown Grand Rapids from September 24th to October 12th.
The discoveries can be astounding and an adventure in itself: from walking into an abandoned warehouse building and finding it populated with hundreds of silk woven water lilies; to happening upon a rendering of a cityscape sculpted in clothing gathered from local Goodwill stores, to walking through aisles of gigantic pills created from blown glass, artistic surprise both traditional, confrontational, and fantastical can be found upon turning any given corner. In short, when it comes to ‘Cool City’ events, they don’t come any cooler than ArtPrize.
Conceived back in 2009 by Rick DeVos and a handful of Grand Rapids businessmen and artistic entrepreneurs as a means of cultivating urban revitalization into the evolving landscape of downtown Grand Rapids, since its inception ArtPrize has brought millions of visitors to a myriad of locations throughout the city. For 19 days, three quarter miles of downtown Grand Rapids become an open playing field where anyone can find a voice in the conversation about what art is and why it matters, because it literally pops up in every square inch of the downtown area; and it’s all free and open to the public.
This year the turnout and attention is ramped up even higher, with the value of the ArtPrize Juried Grand Prize raising to $200,000 which in turn doubled the number of finalists in this competition for $560,000 in prize money, proving that as with most things in life, artists indeed will follow the money.  Moreover, for the first year in its history the total cash prizes awarded by the public vote and by ArtPrize’s jurors will be equal in value. $280,000 will be awarded by the jurors and $280,000 by ArtPrize viewers voting online or through social media; with two Grand Prizes of $200,000 each being awarded and the remaining going to eight category winners.
In advance of ArtPrize 2014, on Wednesday, September 10th, Midland artists Valerie Allen and Armin Mersmann will convene in the Saints & Sinners Lounge at The Midland Center for the Arts for an enlightening and free-flowing ‘Happy Hour’ that will focus on their top choices for ArtPrize 2014. Free to the public and featuring a cash bar, this lively dialogue will hit in advance of the Destination ArtPrize Tour Bus, which will leave the Midland Center for the Arts on September 29th for a full day-trip to Grand Rapids to view ArtPrize contest entries at a variety of locations. The bus will depart at 8 AM sharp and tickets are only $35 for members and $45 for non-members.  You can phone 989.631.8250 for more details.
Given the many transformational arenas that ArtPrize has rapidly earned a worldwide reputation for evoking, coupled with the unprecedented number of artists becoming involved with this artistic happening, recently The Review sat down with Mersmann and Allen to discuss the good, the bad, the ugly, and the remarkable artistic attributes that ArtPrize has come to represent.
Review: How successful do you feel Art Prize has been at being able to garner and showcase a broad range of contemporary art from across the nation?
Valerie Allen: I remember Rick DeVos’ announcement in the spring of 2009 of an exhibit that would award $250,000 dollars to the artist with the most public vote - kind of American Idol for Visual Arts.  I immediately knew I wanted in on the ground floor.  It wasn’t about the award for me - it was about the exposure potential for artists. The success of ArtPrize is that it fires up the imagination with the remote possibility of becoming “discovered” - it is dreamlike that way. 
I also recall making a “cold call” to acquire my venue the very first year. Now there are curators for many venues.  Venues now search out and invite artists all during the year. It is becoming somewhat like an international film festival.  ArtPrize is now used an example of downtown revivals.  It is grass roots with clout.
Armin Mersmann: Every artist shows his or her work, be it to a family member or at the Met. It’s the “earpiece to our song.” If you show at a normal contemporary art gallery you might get at the most 1,000 people viewing your work. At ArtPrize, even a small venue will have at least 50,000 visitors. At the big venues you may have as many as 500,000. In the past you could not garner that in a lifetime of showing work. Today with the Internet you can have your work plastered all around and get thousands of hits a day, but it’s not the real, physical work. At ArtPrize viewers get to experience the real art.
Review: What do you think of the overall quality of the artwork submitted at ArtPrize?
Armin Mersmann: Like the real art world, it’s all over the board. It’s good, bad and ugly - but never dull. If you just started painting you can actually show your work next to an artist who has been working professionally for 40 years; and this is both the positive and negative about ArtPrize. I have seen some of the best work in my life and some of the worst. But that’s the nature art, and ArtPrize.
Valerie Allen: It is across the board—people who think they can “win it all” with an extravagant visual combined with over the top marketing to quiet artists with amazing skill that may not even have a business card. I’m sure ArtPrize organizers would like to see more established artists - and that is increasing each year - but outsider art is definitely present.  Everything from one hit wonders to a few names we might see in art history books someday.
Review: What in your estimation are the biggest strengths of ArtPrize and are there any significant weaknesses that could be addressed to improve the festival?
Valerie Allen: One of the biggest strengths is the organic management style of ArtPrize.  It started with the idea of not micro-managing the event.  It is all about change.  Keep it changing - everything from the rules, to the categories to the addition of jurors.  It is always a moving target -similar to the management style of Facebook.  This keeps the event fresh and unpredictable.  I love that!  Some artists do not - they want to “crack” the code. 
I do see a weakness in the potential of burnout for Grand Rapids residents and businesses.  This is now held at bay by the fact that it is a huge revenue builder for downtown.  It is like having a fourth quarter of holiday spending each year.  If the welcoming, positive attitude can be maintained by the servers, retailers and hoteliers, then ArtPrize will continue to be a viable event/festival. Time will tell.
Armin Mersmann: ArtPrize has been great for the arts and bad for art. What I mean by that is it has given art an outlet like it’s never had before. Half a million people want to see the spectacle. They want the good, but even more they want the bad and absurd. But despite the Schadenfreude, the public will get educated and start seeing beautiful, interesting and provocative ART. Why is it bad for art? Because artists will compromise what they do in order to get votes and the prize money. Things like translated big animals made in a complex manner out of found junk or the like. Abstractionists, those who work small, and those who have a sensitive, vague style have no chance. Go big or go home.
Review:  Do you feel that there is a trend at ArtPrize for artists to create physically 'large' or 'big' pieces of art so that they stand out from the crowd, so to speak; at the expense of more noteworthy work that isn't conceived to be appreciated in terms of yardage?
Armin Mersmann: Most definitely this happens for many reasons. People are not used to seeing “big” anymore. We see the world through a monitor or TV screen. So when we are confronted by something mega we are stopped in our tracks. Good, bad, it doesn’t matter. Kids especially love the big animal sculptures and get their parents to vote for them. It’s understandable. The time spent on a piece is also a draw. We live in an age of instant pleasure, so for someone to spend a 1,000 hours on a piece just doesn’t comprehend. Most of these very large works are outside where everyone has access to them 24 hours a day. Some don’t even go in the venues. Big is where it’s at, at ArtPrize.
Valerie Allen: I wouldn’t call it a trend but I would call it a sub-group of the overall art.  I find that the Large, Big pieces do not always hold up with quality.  They can be thrown together and they can be very raw and sometimes dangerous in the winds that happen in Grand Rapids' autumn.  With the addition of jurors a couple of years ago, the artist could submit work that doesn’t depend on scale but on quality.  I’ve seen very small pieces being short-listed to the juror’s top ten.  That has been a very good change.
Review:  Is there any piece that you feel epitomizes what the spirit & intention of ArtPrize encompasses; and was created to cultivate?
Valerie Allen: A showstopper for me was the two years that Site Lab used the former Grand Rapids Public Museum as their venue.  The museum still had all the old vignettes in place—the halls echoed past exhibits.  Installation artists were assigned exhibit rooms to show their “new art” that included video, conceptual art, dance, working printing studio. It was a happening!  It was one of those venues that used the existing to create a new museum of contemporary art.
Armin Mersmann: David Huang has participated in ArtPrize previously (as have my wife and I – six years straight), and is very possibly the best craftsman of a specialized contemporary metal work in the world. His devotion to his craft, his willingness to spend time with people and share his vision and knowledge is exemplary. David has been in the top 25 a few times, and I think it’s time he wins this thing. He’ll be exhibiting at DeVos Place.
Tim Lowly is a world-class painter showing at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. His passion and technical skills, but most of all his true artistic spirit, is just outstanding. Both of these artists carry the spirit of ArtPrize. Also many lesser artists carry this spirit. They might not be as good, or as knowledgeable, but they give it all for this moment. It’s not easy setting yourself out there for a half million critics! I applaud everyone who has the courage to go through this grueling process of ArtPrize.
Review:  Feel free to add any additional thoughts on any topic related to Artprize that I may not have touched upon.
Armin Mersmann: In a world where airplanes are being shot out of the sky, rockets are bringing down hospitals, Grand Rapids has found a positive, inclusive event that brings lots of people together peacefully to enjoy art, and each other. Go to ArtPrize, support the arts, and just have a great time.
Valerie Allen: I just want to mention how exhilarating the first year of ArtPrize was for me in 2009.  It was all unknown, all organic—it morphed into two weeks of wonder for me.  Nothing could have predicted restaurants running out of food due to crowds viewing art.  Artists and visitors intermingled on the streets. Each casual conversation you over heard was about art.  Attorneys at lunch discussing venues, teenagers walking down the street planning their next stop.  As an artist—this was incredible to me.  It wasn’t a huge sports event—it was an art exhibit. 
I remember getting all teary eyed when event producer, Rob Bliss, launched 10,000 paper airplanes off the roofs of downtown buildings accompanied by the Symphony.  I was sandwiched between people taking photos with cell phones—all of us packed in the middle of Monroe Street.
I remember the tense feeling of realizing the public just might vote a giant sea monster as the top winner instead of a true fine art creation.  Fine art was the winner! Ran Ortner’s exquisite oil painting of water became the $250,000 winner.  Ran is the epitome of a gentle, gracious, truly dedicated artist living in Brooklyn.  The concept worked!!
And in the end, I remembered it was worth the time to apply, create, participate.  I was hooked.  I can’t imagine not being in this annual event.  It’s simply too much fun!
Valerie & Armin’s ArtPrize 2014 Top Selections
Valerie Allen:
1) Conor Fagan – Novia Scotia ‘The Hidden Color Of Things’ Oil panting, color, pattern surreal. Exhibited at Palette Coffee & Art
2) Anila Quayyum Agha. Born in Pakistan. ‘Intersections’ Laser Cut installation. Venue: Grand Rapids Art Museum.
3) John McLaughin. Michigan. ‘Running in Circles’ Mixed Media. Venue: Cathedral Square.
4) Ryan Foster Alabama. ‘Temporary Landscapes/Permanent Clouds’ Oil Painting. Venue: Devos Convention Center.
5) Gosia Podosek. Chicago. ‘Reeds’ Oil Painting. Venue: Calvin College.
Armin Mersmann:
From the images on the screen, which can be disappointing in life, or the opposite, I’ve picked fifteen that I think I have to look at. Armen Agop, Tim Lowly, Frits Hoendervanger, Valerie Allen, Anila Quayyum Agha, Maximo Gonzalez, Rebecca DeGroot, Mark Piotrowski, Renata Palubinskas, Mark McKenna, Gosia Podosek, David Huang, Lucy Glendinning Craig Merchant and Darcia Labrosse. They are intriguing, interesting in concept and craftsmanship, the statement is intelligent and not pretentious. This makes me want to see and spend time with this object. I am interested the artist’s vision of how they see the world and the passion it takes for them to spend time to share this insight. 


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