ArtPrize: Reflecting On and Refining an Open Art Competition

ArtPrize 2009, Grand Rapids, MI. Photo courtesy of Brian Kelly.

ArtPrize 2009, Grand Rapids, MI. Photo courtesy of Brian Kelly.

Last August, I wrote a post on this blog called ArtPrize: An Experiment in Decentralized Curation and Competition. At that time, the team I work with was a month away from launching the inaugural ArtPrize event. It ended up being five times bigger than any of our estimates—200,000 visitors flooded downtown Grand Rapids to see 1,262 artists in 159 venues during 17 days. The explosion of activity was thrilling, and at times perplexing. I’ve been asked to reflect on what we learned the first year, and where ArtPrize is headed.

ArtPrize is moving toward new ways of thinking about public art. This is not because we’ve cooked up a new definition for the term, but rather, because we’ve built a platform upon which art and the public can encounter each another in new ways.

More on that later; first a few basics. ArtPrize gives away the world’s largest art prize: $250,000 to first place, $449,000 total. The prize is decided by public vote. The parameters are simple. Artists must show within a venue during the 17-day event. Venues must be within a three square-mile area of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. There is both an open call to artists (deadline is May 27) and open call to venues (already registered for 2010). Artists and venues connect directly with one another through ArtPrize 2010 will take place from September 22–October 10. We’ve made some small but significant adjustments, like introducing series of juried awards, and expanding partnerships with art and cultural institutions.

Artists can be from anywhere and show anything they can get a venue to agree to exhibit. Venues range from professionally curated art institutions and public parks, to night clubs and vacant storefronts. Voters must register in person at the event.

Last year, the top prize went to Brooklyn-based painter Ran Ortner, whom Nicole Caruth recently interviewed.

Ran Ortner, "Open Water #24," 2009. Winner of ArtPrize 2009, Grand Rapids, MI. Photo courtesy of Brian Kelly.

Ran Ortner, "Open Water #24," 2009. Winner of ArtPrize 2009, Grand Rapids, MI. Photo courtesy of Brian Kelly.

In my last post, I focused on two ideas that were driving much of our thinking heading into the first year. First, ArtPrize is an experiment, and second, the idea of incentive is central to what we’re doing. We provide the reactive agents, a giant pot of money and a public vote, to incentivize artists and the public to re-negotiate their relationship to one another.

As we reflected on the results of the first iteration of this experiment, we felt the need to refine exactly what our role is — to state what we are doing and, of equal importance, what we are not doing. The result of this process was a design brief, which can be downloaded here.

At first, it seems like using the term “design brief” is just a fashionable way of saying “mission statement.” But there are some important differences. Art institutions direct processes and outcomes using a mission statement as a guide. We don’t want to be an institution; instead, we’re designing a platform upon which many players — art institutions among them — can interact, experiment with new strategies, and tailor their involvement to meet their specific goals.

The distinction between developing an institution and developing a platform plays out in a number of ways.

Young Kim, "Salt and Earth," 2009. Installaion view from ArtPrize 2009, Grand Rapids, MI. Salt, red clay dust, lightbulbs, and other materials. Photo courtesy of Brian Kelly.

Young Kim, "Salt and Earth," 2009. Installaion view from ArtPrize 2009, Grand Rapids, MI. Salt, red clay dust, lightbulbs, and other materials. Photo courtesy of Brian Kelly.

ArtPrize, the organization, does not curate.
The rules of the event prohibit anyone within the ArtPrize organization from curating a venue. We design the basics of the event, which is actually hundreds of little events and exhibitions happening simultaneously. Each is managed in a different way, ranging from professionally curated art institutions to enthusiastic business owners working with artists for the first time.

A big incentive makes a big difference.
We do not see the prize or the vote as a validation of creative output. We see it as the world’s largest excuse to get creative. It catalyzed artists and venue organizers to experiment on a massive scale. What was unexpected was how the “game” of it brought massive crowds, including people who never normally engage in the arts.

Simple mechanics, complex dynamics
We’re intent to keep the structure of ArtPrize simple to allow for unexpected results. We don’t have a curriculum around which to build programming; instead, we’re interested in defining and maintaining certain tensions. These tensions drive debate and kick-start passionate contributions to the dialog surrounding ArtPrize. How do notions of populism and elitism interact? What happens when artworks are marketed for popularity rather than purchase? How does a public vote shift assumptions about the audience for contemporary art?

As we move into the second year, we continue to hone in on the balance between what we control and what we enable. ArtPrize exists to be a collection of super-charged collisions between art and the public. The constants of the experiment are simple: the money will go to someone, and the public will decide who that is. Beyond that, the variables are infinite. ArtPrize is an opportunity for artists, institutions, and the public to compete, experiment, interact, react, and forge new paths together.

Kevin Buist is an artist, freelance writer, and Director of Artist Relations for ArtPrize. He lives and works in Grand Rapids, MI. He received a BFA from Calvin College, and attended the New York Center for Art and Media Studies. He has written about film for SpoutBlog and co-produced FilmCouch, a Webby-nominated podcast. Before helping launch ArtPrize, he ran Calvin College’s 106 Gallery in Grand Rapids, MI. He can be found on the web at and on his blog, The Porcupine School of Poetry.

  1. The aesthetic and intelligent results of a art competition decided by a American Idol type of popular vote depends on who is voting and in a sense who is setting up the system of voting.
    Kevin Buist is correct to sat that ArtPrize itself does not curate but if artists want to understand who in fact will be curating their work and who will be voting for or against that work they need to understand the nature of influence the Devos family has on Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Devos Foundation is a ultra conservative christian foundation which has lobbied to break down Michigan environmental regulations and social welfare policies in favor or public self regulation and pro-life amendments. In this case Art and Politics seems connected.

  2. Taz says:

    As much as I like the concept of Artprize I do think having professional jurors means more to an artists career. Look at the artist social networking site and their art scholarship competitions as an example,

  3. Kevin Buist says:


    That’s a good point. We realize the significance a professional juror can add to an award. That’s why we’re expanding the number of juried awards that are given alongside the public vote. We’re really excited to see how the two sets of winners overlap, or don’t.

    More info about the jurors here:

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