ArtPrize gets Political

Thomas Boldt shares his views on ArtPrize.

The world of juried art competitions is always subject to its own inner turmoil, but one of the more unusual prizes has taken on an uncharacteristically political tone this year. ArtPrize is a public art showing and competition that takes place annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan, originally founded in 2009.

Grand Rapids is not exactly a cultural hub by any stretch of the imagination, but at least one source has ArtPrize down as the most-attended art event on the entire planet. It seems a bit hard to believe in comparison with any of the Art Basel fairs that draw celebrities and visitors from around the world, but the prize pool is an impressive $500,000 USD, and many well-respected artists have participated (including 2014 winner Anila Agha, whose work we explored in a previous post).

ArtPrize is quite unique as far as juried shows go, because any adult can enter – provided they can find a venue in Grand Rapids to display their work. If you brought a piece to a corner barber shop in Grand Rapids and worked out a deal with the owner to display your piece, you’d be eligible to enter the competition. Needless to say, this creates a pretty unusual atmosphere at the best of times, but this year has had some additional complications thanks to the current American political climate.

Many art lovers may be unaware that the entire ArtPrize event is the brainchild of Rick DeVos, billionaire entrepreneur and husband to Betsy DeVos, the current U.S. Secretary for Education under the Trump administration. While the DeVos family is not responsible for bankrolling the entire prize fund, it does make one wonder what impact their involvement might have on the decisions of the judges.

There was a marked upswing in the number of politically-motivated entries in the current year as a result. “It’s a good year for political art because the political climate of the country now compared to the previous eight ArtPrizes makes the political nature of all art much harder to ignore. Artists don’t bring politics into it, they cue you to the fact that politics is always there,” explains ArtPrize director of exhibitions Kevin Buist.

Abraham Lincoln

However, despite that seeming encouragement of the politically-motivated submissions, the grand winner of the public vote for 2017 was a pixelated portrait of Abraham Lincoln made out of pennies, and the juried winner was an interactive piece about the role of food in the community at a 300 foot long table. Perhaps Buist and I have a different idea of what constitutes ‘political art’, but these definitely feel like ‘safe’ choices that are guaranteed not to ruffle any political feathers in the wrong circles – or any wealthy benefactors.