ArtPrize 2009 Critique
Critique of Artprize 2009
By David Huang
This writing will be some of my thoughts and observations about the Artprize 2009 competition and ideas I’d suggest for further improvement of the event in the future.
For those reading this who may not know what Artprize was, here is a brief synopsis. This was an experiment with a new kind of art competition and way to develop social interaction that took place in Grand Rapids, Michigan from September 23rd through October 10th in 2009. It was the idea of Rick Devos, and the Devos family donated $449,000 for prize money. The top prize was $250,000. Businesses, organizations, etc. that were within a certain geographic area of downtown Grand Rapids could sign up as venues to host artists. Any artist 18 or older in the world could sign up to be a participating artist. The artists and venues then interacted among themselves to match up who would show where. There was no one central jury for the show, rather each venue made the selections for their own space. It should be noted that not all artists were able to secure a venue. The next interesting difference with Artprize was that the viewing public were the ones selecting the winners. Anyone who could be physically present during the event to register could vote on the work and the artist with the most votes wins. There are other details in the specifics of how this went, some of which I will be critiquing, but that’s the essence of it for those who are just reading about this for the first time here.
I hope to write this without too may biases creeping in, considering the event from the perspective of the artists, voting public, and venues. However, for full disclosure I will state that I was a participating artist. I entered the competition with the belief that I truly had a reasonable chance of being one of the top 10 finalists who won awards. As best as I can tell, I never made it into the top 100. My hosting venue was LaFontsee Galleries. They are located in what became an outer zone of the whole event. When I observed that the outer zone venues just weren’t getting the foot traffic the central venues were I realized I didn’t have much of a chance. I still think I could have had a shot at the top 10 with the work I made if I had been in one of the primary trafficked venues. (that may be an ego bias) I should also note that I am a self-supporting professional artist.
Over all I feel like Artprize was a huge success! If nothing changed I would still enter again in 2010. I feel like this was a great boost for the city of Grand Rapids. Every day during the event downtown GR was alive with people, and not just people driving around in cars. Masses of people were physically out on the streets walking around to find the art and in this process they were exploring the city. One of the things I really enjoyed about this event was having a reason to go into buildings and businesses I never had a reason to enter before. I’ve lived in West Michigan virtually all my life but I still got to experience areas of the city I never knew existed or had never been to. As I mentioned above, the outer venues of this event didn’t get nearly as much traffic, and thus the artists showing at those venues didn’t have much of a chance at the prize. I’ve heard some suggest that the borders of the event be reduced to try and help alleviate this problem. I don’t think I would reduce the borders because I feel like experiencing a wider area of the city is part of the appeal. Also reducing the borders will probably result in fewer venues and thus less opportunities for artists to be in the event at all.
Going into Artprize I had expected that this event would be a good boost to many of the merchants in the city. From what I’ve heard this does appear to have been the case, esp. for the restaurants. However, what I didn’t really expect was how much this whole things helped to develop community in terms of direct person to person relationships, something I feel we all desperately need more of if our society is survive and thrive. With so many physically out on the streets walking around, with the same purpose of looking at the artwork, conversations among strangers just naturally started up. I didn’t get too far during the days I had set aside to see the art because I would keep finding myself talking to casual acquaintances or total strangers about a piece, the whole event, and perhaps drifting off to completely unrelated topics. Others walking around looking at the work would spontaneously join in the conversation. People were out in vast numbers, meeting their neighbors or visitors to the city. We were agreeing and disagreeing with each other, but sharing our views and opinions in a friendly fashion. This is how respect and understanding is built among fellow citizens. It was a great thing!
The community building has gone beyond just the days of the event for me. I live in Sand Lake, a little village in northern Kent County. I’ve lived there for years now, but don’t know too many people in the area. I had shared my piece with the book discussion group at the local library. This led to a brief presentation of my piece to the Rotary group in Cedar Springs. This all happened prior to Artprize starting. Now after Artprize I discover that word had spread about these communities and many from these towns did go to GR for Artprize. People in the area I never knew keep coming up to me asking how I did in the competition, complimenting me on my entry, or sharing their impression of the event. Artprize did indeed start conversations and they are continuing in many small ways among individuals building communities in general and awareness of art. This has been exciting for me to see art functioning in a tangible way to bring wide groups of people together. As a professional artist I generally view artwork through an economic lens, or only consider how it might affect the private lives and spaces of individual viewers or collectors. Artprize helped me to see artwork functioning in a public, social realm.
That said, I also feel that Artprize has helped artists in the economic realm. Certainly the top 10 finalists were helped, but it goes beyond that. What I’ve seen is that this intense focus on art Artprize generated elevated a broader awareness of art. As more people think about and consider the merits of specific art works, styles of art, and how it affects our environments it naturally occurs to some that they wish to bring art into their personal, business, or public spaces. I may not have placed in the top 10 of the competition but I did sell several pieces during the event. I fully expect to be selling more as a result of the event. I got to share what I do with hundreds of new people, talking to them personally, demonstrating what I do and why I do it. History has shown me that greater understanding leads to greater appreciation, which then leads to more sales.
Again, from the viewpoint of a professional artist, I feel like there is a wealth of data that could be learned from this event. On my path to becoming a professional artist I have learned that if you want to sell any significant amount of artwork you need to be making a connection with the viewer/buyer. Generally, this needs to be a positive connection. With Artprize the public was invited to voice their opinion of what they liked or even disliked. The public represents the broad pool of potential clients for artist’s work. We have gotten to see what artworks collectively received the most response. There is no certain formula for this, but we can try to understand the essence of the works so many liked. Is there a common theme, emotional mood expressed, style of work, etc?
I’ve also found it interesting to look at my various marketing efforts and those of others and consider what had substantial impact or was a flop. For instance, many were complaining that local artists would have a huge advantage by being able to get their friends to all come vote for them. Certainly it is true that was an advantage, however, from what I could see the voting of friends and family did not have enough impact to matter for determining the finalists. I’m actually quite pleased a non-local artist won the top prize to really reinforce this point. This is not to say that local artists don’t have other advantages. They certainly do. It seems unavoidable to me, but clearly they are not insurmountable advantages. So in future years I will work to get the word out to friends in the region, but I know I need to devote more of my efforts to reaching those I don’t know if I hope to win.
Related to this topic of information artist’s can glean from the event I must say I was rather distressed by how many artists I heard complaining in one way or another about the “ignorant” public who doesn’t understand the artwork, and perhaps shouldn’t even be voting on it. I don’t really have any issues with artwork that speaks only to those highly educated in the art world, but I would consider such work to be in a niche market. As an artist I consider it to by my job to reach the viewer. If my work is aimed at a very narrow group and others don’t get it I wouldn’t be surprised or dismayed. If my target audience doesn’t get it then it’s my fault not the audience. I feel like Artprize was designed with everybody intended to be the audience. When the public is broadly declared too stupid, ignorant, or uninformed to understand our work as artists what we are really conveying is that art is not for them and they are right to ignore it. Such comments demean or intimidate the average person, causing them to feel angry or stupid. These negative reactions mainly serve to drive people away from art. At least, this has been my observation over the years. I loved how Artprize helped to validate the public opinion. It invited and gave the average person permission declare what they liked or disliked. The answers they give are not wrong, or ill-informed. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. Greater understanding of the processes or conceptual thoughts behind a piece may affect these like and dislikes. However, it is our role as artists to communicate this information effectively. We are the communicators expressing ourselves to an audience.
All this said, I do have some thoughts and ideas about how Artprize could be made better. I’ll start with the major one.
I would like to see the actual voting numbers for every individual artist posted live on their Artprize page, during the initial period of voting to determine the finalists. I haven’t met an fellow artist yet who didn’t want to know this information, and I’ve met many of the voting public who really wanted to see this information too. For the artists this is a specific sort of feedback they can use to gauge how viewers are responding to their work. Clearly those who end up being the finalists are getting a signal from the voting numbers that many like what they are doing. However, even those in the outlying areas which saw much less traffic can gain from this data. If I’m at my venue and see that roughly 100 people come through and I get 50 “up” votes, that tells me something. A significant proportion of people like what I’m doing. If I get zero votes during the entire event, while that may sting a bit, it’s also important information. It would tell me I’m not connecting strongly enough with viewers.
For those voting I believe that seeing the number of votes an artist has go up by one when they vote for them would be rewarding. It is a visible result to reinforce your support (or lack of with a down vote) for the artwork/artist. It tells the voter clearly that their vote counts, their voice counts, what they think matters. I realize this is conveyed broadly with the whole competition, but I think the visual reinforcement would give a greater sense of participation and encourage more voting.
In combination with this idea of showing live voting numbers I don’t think any other indication of who is leading should be published on the official Artprize website. I did appreciate how the leaders in this years competition were presented in random groups of 25. This gave us a sense of who was leading but didn’t give the actual leaders as much of an advantage. However, I believe the snowball effect still took place. Those in the top 100 were simply seen more and considered more as to whether they should or should not be in the top 100. Those who were still outside the top 100 after the first few days no longer had much of a chance. If the main page just showed an always changing random sample of work drawn from the entire pool of artists that would be better. With the actual numbers posted on individual artist pages of the site, but never collectively indicating who is in the lead, the whole process become much more interactive. A dedicated individual could go through the pages of every single artist to determine who is in the top 10. However, in that process they would get to see every artist’s work and hopefully see work they might never have gotten to. You could even make it so the actual voting numbers are posted at the bottom of the artist’s pages forcing greater interaction to scroll down to view it.
I’m sure some people would try to determine this information and post it on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t think that would be a problem as no one could be sure it’s true unless they check everyone for themselves. Plus, the information could very well be out of date immediately. This wouldn’t be any official declaration of who is leading. Such posting can certainly inspire conversation and get people to look up the supposed leading works, but it would require more direct action on the part of a voter. The have to actually go to the official Artprize website and search out the works/artists in question. It would not be so easy to see who is leading and decide to vote for them as well. I believe this would greatly reduce the snowball effect, helping to level the playing field.
Another result of this could be to help the outlying venues get more traffic. If more people were searching through the artists on-line to see who was leading, they should see images of the great work that is being shown in these venues. That should inspire more to make the effort to visit these outer areas and really see the work. Prior to observing what happened during Artprize this year I would have said few will actually take the time to go see a piece they saw an image of on-line. Instead what I learned was that for the voting public the voting, and even who wins, is not necessarily the primary interest. They truly wanted to see the works of art! I learned this by observing the huge numbers that kept coming out after the initial voting, and even after the winners were announced. Not only that but I was directly told this in various ways by many touring around for Artprize. So I do believe that showing live voting numbers on the artist’s pages, and only there, will help drive more traffic to the outlying venues. For the venues themselves I have to think this would be more rewarding. I spoke with several people running these outer venues. It was discouraging for them to put so much time and effort into it, staying open all the hours when only a few people trickle through. With more traffic, and perhaps people coming specifically to see works the venues themselves decided were worthy to show, I think it would encourage more in the outer zones to remain or become venues. If this in turn leads to a higher density of venues and more artists being shown these areas should draw even more visitors in a positive feedback loop.
I have also entertained the idea of having these live voting numbers on the individual pages not be shown during the first couple days of the event. This would create a complete black out of who is leading at first, giving everyone a chance to get their numbers going. I also considered the thought of during the last day of initial voting having the top 50 featured in random order on the main page of the Artprize website. At that point, realistically, the finalists would be in the top 50, and this would allow a sort of final editing by voters for the finalists. I know this past year I went through the leading contenders in the final hours to select out who among those I felt were the best. I enjoyed being able to do that and suspect others did this as well. I felt like the finalists we chose were among the strongest of the top 25 (with an exception or two) and have to wonder if last minute voting from the likely pool of winners was a reason for this. I’m not sure if an initial black out and last day listing of the top 50 would be good or just add more complexity and confusion, but I throw it out there as something to consider.
Another suggestion which I think would be fantastic I actually heard from another artist, Tom Clinton. The idea was to allow comments on the individual artist pages on the Artprize site. Part of what Artprize is about is generating conversations. Allowing people to start and carry on cyber conversations should fit right in with the theme and enhance or stimulate more real world conversation. For the voters this could allow them to express their opinions beyond just an “up” or “down” vote. For the artists this could be a HUGE thing. I think the majority of us artists knew going in that the chances of winning a cash award were small. I believe many were doing it for other reasons, to show their work and take part in the event. What a comment feature on our individual pages could offer is much more substantial feedback, sort of a public critique of our work. I’m sure most of the comments would be along the lines of, “nice piece,” or “I love your work.” However, other comments might get more detailed about what a viewer enjoyed or the emotional response it inspired. All comments are useful. As I wrote about before, learning how, why, and what people respond to in artwork is of great value to an artist. I think for many artists this feature alone would be reason enough to take part in Artprize.
A comment feature for the individual works would naturally generate negative comments as well. This isn’t all bad. Artist’s can learn as much from what others dislike as what they like. It would also help everyone to understand just why a particular work is “controversial” and allow viewers to really debate the issues of a specific piece. Getting back to the often heard complaint that the voting public is uneducated, this comment feature would allow those “in the know” to explain why we should be valuing and appreciating a specific work. People could address the specifics of that one piece and make the case for why it’s great or horrible. The artist’s themselves could chose to enter into the fray and defend or explain their works.
Having said all that I do have to acknowledge that allowing comments could create problems. If Artprize was to do this I believe it should be stated clearly before an artist signs up. Not all artists would want this as it can take a pretty thick skin to read what some truly think. There is a tendency in the cyber realm for some very hurtful words to be thrown around. An idea to deal with this might be to let the individual artists decide if the “comment” feature was turned on for their individual page. That way they decide whether to invite this form of feedback or not. Also, perhaps giving the artists the power to delete any comments on their own pages they feel are offensive would be a good thing. That way the Artprize staff doesn’t have to try and act as moderators for hundreds of different conversations. The artist’s could do it for themselves. Overall though I do feel the benefits of a comment feature would vastly overshadow the potential drawbacks.
I’ve heard many comments that the initial voting period for Artprize wasn’t long enough. I do agree with that. This past year we had a week to see and consider 1200+ works. Then the we had another week to consider the 10 finalists, which almost by definition, most people had already seen. I had heard the idea expressed that there should be two weekends for viewing during the initial round. I agree two weekends would be nice, but I think I understand why it was done the way it was. Not everyone can get out during the week to see the work, hence why weekends were very busy during Artprize. The way it was set up there was one weekend to see all the work, one weekend to see the finalists, and one final weekend day (Sat. Oct. 10) to see who the winners were. I feel that if you took away any of these weekends there would be valid complaints. To add an extra weekend for the initial voting period, which would be nice to have, would therefore mean making the whole event longer. While this might be great for venues that are also retail establishments it would be much more demanding for the other venues, not to mention out of town artists who come into GR for Artprize. I believe all the venues put in a lot of effort to be open during all the scheduled hours already. Asking them to do more doesn’t seem like a wise idea. To get more time during the initial voting period I would suggest trying to shift the announcement of the finalists out a weekday or two. Perhaps announce it on a Friday evening with first round voting ending at noon that same day.
I was really pleased to see Cascade Engineering and the UICA present “extra” awards for Artprize. I feel like this sort of involvement from others should be encouraged!
Problems with the website going down and people not being able to finalize their voter registration due to technical issues need to be worked out. I personally know a few people who got frustrated with this and decided to forget the whole event as a result. Clearly, those really interested in art won’t be deterred by such problems, but it’s all those with mild interest, that we really want to become involved, that get lost.
I would like to see something that presents at least a tiny image of every work in the competition. Allowing us to all get some easy form of overview of the work would be helpful. This too could help stimulate more traffic to outlying areas as we’d all get a chance to see what is available, and could then actively search out what looks interesting. I do realize this works against some artists whose work is more of a performance or event. However, I believe Artprize is meant to be a visual arts competition and the artists entering should be able to come up with a compelling image to represent what they are showing/doing. This overview might be in print or on-line, but it would be nice to have.
Again let me state that I feel like Artprize 2009 was a great success just as it was. If nothing changed I would still be happy to participate again as an artist. I sincerely thank Rick Devos, the Devos family, and all the other organizers, volunteers, venues, voters, visitors, and artists who made it happen. I greatly appreciate that the organizers have been very open too and requesting feedback about the event. I present this writing to all in the spirit of a constructive critique to make a great thing even better.