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October, 2014

Thanks to Acton Institute’s generosity, I got to participate, for the first time, in the ArtPrize. When I was invited to participate, I was ambivalent about whether to participate. My work does not do well in a setting in which a viewer only gets a glance at the work. I despise art fairs for that reason. My work is contemplative, and needs quiet space and a slowed time, and the surface of my work requires that the viewer spend at least ten minutes staring at the surface of pulverized pigments to begin to “see” the work. Then the viewer will finally see that the pigments are not “blue” but a prismatic rainbow aura. Even though my work “Walking on Water” is a huge work, 7 feet by 11 feet, I knew that I would have little chance to gain traction, even though Acton went the “extra mile” of creating a huge wall for it in the entry.

Even with this ambivalence, I was grateful for the invitation. So I chose to participate. I had no idea of the magnitude of what the ArtPrize has become. I consulted with the team that initiated the ArtPrize, so I knew about its humble starts. I had no idea that it has grown to involve 1500 participating artists, or that 400,000 people now attend. I had no idea that Rick DeVoss' initial entrepreneurial vision has literally transformed downtown, and created a buzz that even the cynical art world of New York could not ignore.

I arrived to lecture at Acton Institute two days before the ArtPrize. Already the buzz was in the air, and the hotel at which I was staying began to fill up. I walked about downtown Grand Rapids and found many of restaurants were preparing for ArtPrize as if a holiday season was to descend upon them. They were hurriedly setting up tables outside, creating menus for the weeks to come to be efficient as possible, like a pre-holiday rush at department stores.

What would 400,000 people descending upon a small city look like? Well, it looks like an entire football stadium just let out, except the people all are all to spread out to the city to see art, rather than go home. They stood in long lines to see art at the Gerald Ford Museum, to see fringe art performances at the SiTE:LAB across from the museum. They looked like families waiting to get into Disneyland, rather than to see experimental art in a dilapidated bank building. So many school children were there to look at the art, with their teachers eager to lead the charge. There were street musicians, folks in costumes, TV station-one created an ESPN-like studio inside the museum. Everyone seem to have their cameras out. After the opening, my hotel lobby was so packed, I had to wait fifteen minutes to get the elevator to my room.

Meanwhile, artists were lined up to receive their credentials at the ArtPrize office. I did not have to, because Acton folks already had registered for me, but a friend of mine described the scene to me. He said he texted his wife that he might have made a mistake, because it looked like an American Idol audition, rather than a line of artists getting their badges. Some people were dressed in carnival-like outfits trying to attract attention; artists were passing out their ArtPrize entry description or showing tiny thumbnail images of their art on the official ArtPrize App. My friend is a leader in a church, and as he felt the neediness of all who were in line oozing out, he felt that he had to step out of his persona as an artist, and start to minister to people, instead.

Pamela Alderman already has had a superb ArtPrize career. Her humble start was showing a single watercolor painting in a seventh floor gallery the first year of ArtPrize. The Amway Grand Hotel showcased her work the second year, and every year she was given a better spot. This year her work was exhibited at the Ford Presidential Museum. Her work of paintings combined with participatory Yoko Ono-like installations hit home, and the lines for her exhibit grew longer every day.

I met Pamela over six years ago at a Calvin College writer’s conference. She had returned a few years earlier from the mission field, and started to paint again. She met me with her portfolio, and when she showed me some of her work, I immediately saw talent - still yet raw, but nevertheless worthy of attention. Beyond the technical development, though, I saw that her art spoke of healing, an intangible quality I still cannot fully articulate. I encouraged her then to take her talent seriously and cultivate it, and to exhibit her work in hospitals and other venues that would overlap with her gifts.

A few years later ArtPrize began, and she signed on. Her third installation was about cancer patients. Along with three paintings of a cancer survivor, she created an interactive area where people could list names of loved ones or friends who had struggled with cancer, and place them on a metal tree as a way to remember them, or pray for them. She prepared 1.500 cards for people to fill out and put upon the tree. They all were gone by the second day. Her husband, a retired naval officer, prepared another 3,000 cards to get through the first weekend. All the cards were placed on the tree. So they prepared 7,000, and they were used up in a week. 19 days later By the time ArtPrize concluded 19 days later, nearly 20,000 notes had been hung on the tree.

The year after, Amway gave her a larger space, an entire floor. She painted images of Congolese woman in suffering; people came in droves to see her exhibit. Thus, the fifth year, when she created a display of a thousand vellum origami birds along with her paintings, she also crafted 20,000 cards of vellum and left them in the gallery for people to write down their wishes and prayers for children in need all disappeared within days. One morning when she came back to the exhibit, she noticed that people had used up all the beautiful vellum to write on and post on the wall, so they began to take her information cards, punch holes in them, and post them on the wall. “It didn't look as good as the vellum,” she said, “but it did not matter. ArtPrize visitors' desire to participate in the creative process couldn't be stopped; they created their own pathway to respond to my work.”

When the popular vote by ArtPrize visitors puts an artist in the top fifty, the artists receives an invitation to exhibit at the museum in the following year. This year, Pamela’s installation “The Scarlet Cord” at the Ford Presidential Museum is attracting thousands. It is situated within a 40-foot storage container. “A twisting scarlet cord depicts the trauma bond that connects the children to their traffickers. The weathered doors represent these abused children whose youthful minds have become knotted.”

What Pamela experienced, and what ArtPrize made possible, is an extraordinary success by any measure. But when I visited her home for tea and spoke to her and her husband, she told me that she is burned out. “As soon as this ArtPrize is over, I have to prepare for the next.” I could see the exhaustion behind her eyes.

In many artists I have spoken to, even on the second day of the ArtPrize, I could sense reluctance, and worn out souls. They have spent all their savings, all their vacation time, and they were here in person to speak to many people as possible to get the votes. I got exhausted just speaking to them.

With a few Jeff Koons-like exceptions, for the most part artists are introverts. Artists actually enjoy being alone in a studio, working without any recognition. And they have worked extra hard to prepare for this extravaganza, often traveling from afar.

Because ArtPrize was set up by entrepreneurs, it rewards the entrepreneurs in that introvert group. To get attention, you must scream the loudest, outwit the other artists to get the spotlight, create an eye-catching work that people who do not know about art can vote for. In some cases, especially for “successful” entries, the artists must not just be entrepreneurs, but also need a lawyer to represent them. Success will draw many sharks to your pool; artists shared with me some of what happened to them, especially if their entries enjoyed a modicum of success, which surprised them.

These artists need to be cared for. They need an “Artist Care” package affirming their sacrifice to even get to the ArtPrize. The fact that the artist is exhibiting is surely a victory of some kind. Perhaps restaurants could give introverted artists, exhausted from greeting people, corner tables-or even vouchers. Grand Rapid is benefiting economically from the ArtPrize, and given that it cannot take place without artists participating, then that benefit must be shared with artists. But rather than giving artists checks, we should invest in facilitators to assist artists with the infrastructure and provide pragmatic help to get them to the next level. The goal of ArtPrize should be to take care of artists so that they can grow and create better art, toward the flourishing of culture, rather than the bottom line of entrepreneurial economic success.

The “success” of ArtPrize then should be leveraged to create many residencies for artists who have shown resiliency and excellence. It should be used to help them with representation, legal and financial help. The “success” should also go to develop facilitators and docents, trained to help people develop a better eye to see art, to teach the language of art to those interested. We need, like a winery, experience that helps people to see the value of a $200 bottle of wine, as opposed to a $10 bottle.

Many artists long to win the $200,000 ArtPrize award. Few would take home that much; a sizeable amount would go to taxes, and since most artists have gone into debt to get to where they are, they might be lucky to have $50,000 left after the overdue bills are paid. That is still a reward worth getting, but it is not enough to sustain an artist’s work long-term. Remember that if an artist’s income goes up, so will that artist’s taxes. Many self-employed artists see over 60% of their income go to taxes and legal and accounting fees. It’s almost better for an artist, therefore, to be provided with free work space, social capital (in terms of marketing and a nurturing community), and a small stipend.

If all of this sounds like a disgruntled artist complaining - biting the hands that feeds the artist at ArtPrize - then let me clarify with two “frequently asked questions.”

Q: Don't artists simply want a chance to show their art?

A: Yes, but we do still have to pay our rent as well. Most artists will not see a dime of the profits that Grand Rapid is making as a city. Art is not like baseball, where only the elite players get the millions. In order for the next Renaissance to take place, we must raise the quality of middle class, everyday art. It takes a lifetime of commitment to develop and hone artistic talent.

Q: Hasn't ArtPrize created unprecedented economic buzz and and an unprecedented audience?

A: Yes, but the numbers alone do not indicate that people are actually appreciative of good art, or that the audience is growing in depth, not just in numbers.

All that said, I hope that artists will not get a feeling of entitlement from reading this. The ArtPrize owes artists nothing. We chose to participate in this frenzy. If we do not like it, we do not have to participate, and that is I will choose to do after this experience. I have the luxury of an established career; but does that not tell us something? If an artist who has an established career cannot feel good about participating in ArtPrize, then you can guarantee that the quality of the ArtPrize work will not be as high. It may be more important for established artists to mentor younger artists, something that I am trying to do with Pamela Alderman and other artists. It will be hard for me to invest in that time, simply because an established artists have learned to be very disciplined with their time.

On the other hand, artists need competition. Just because you did not win does not mean you stop trying to compete. Let’s learn from each experience, and grow to create better, enduring art. I was encouraged to see thousands of children lined up to see art; they are a future audience for art. ArtPrize has given me an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful fall skies of Grand Rapids, and, in my case, to be hosted graciously at Acton. I am deeply grateful. ArtPrize has the potential to be a game-changer in the world of art. What I do not want it to become is another American Idol. What I desire to see is a flourishing community of artists and art lovers who see art as a joyful gusher of gifts flowing into our cities. May the beautiful strangeness of art continue to fill every street of Grand Rapids; and may we see the next generation filled with imaginative children who know that their expression can create a better city.