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A populist approach to art

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — It’s an arts advocate’s dream come true — art everywhere.

People walking in the streets talking about — you guessed it — art. New murals on city building walls. Performance artists on street corners provoking passersby. Formerly vacant buildings transformed into venues for large-scale conceptual sculptures. Museums flowing with people studying new works of art alongside art from the museum’s permanent collection.

The visual-arts cornucopia is the “arts democracy in action” of ArtPrize, a sprawling competition in Grand Rapids, now in its third year, and capturing the imagination of artists around the world and probably more than a few city planners. ArtPrize follows the basic idea that art is defined subjectively and by popular ballot. While the approach doesn’t fit the scholarly or academic approach to art whereby convention and tradition are fundamental to determine the meaning and authenticity of an artwork, the impact of art as a popularity contest has an undeniable effect of promoting art. Visitors vote on their favorite art works, and the artist with the highest number of votes wins $250,000 of the $490,000 prize money. The nine other finalists share the balance.

For three weeks from late September to early October, tens of thousands of people traveled to western Michigan, drawn by displays of art in the streets, restaurants, museums, colleges, inside buildings, outside of hotels, alongside convention centers and in public parks. In total, 1,653 works in nearly every style and medium represent the work of about 1,500 artists from around the world. University of Michigan faculty and students were among the participants.

Joseph Rosa (photo left), director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, was among five panelists conducting a critical discussion of the top ten finalists. Rosa chairs the  U-M’s President’s Advisory Committee on Public Art ; he is a prolific author with more than 15 books, and has curated 45 exhibitions.

Among the works discussed  by the panel were a stained-glass mosiac of the crucifixion of Jesus, performance art of a statue-like construction crew that comes to life, fiberglass resin full-size sculpture of former President Gerald R. Ford, and a multi-media large-scale mural on the side of a building. To view the top ten finalists, please visit ARTPRIZE

STEP INSIDE: The installation, “Thick-It,” photo right, is created by Adam Fure and Ellie Abrons, lecturers in the A. Alfred Taubman College ofArchitecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. The piece is displayed in the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
ArtPrize photos by Frank Provenzano