Friday, July 24, 2015

The Scoop on ArtPrize

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When it comes to art, they say bigger is better. Maybe. Maybe not. But when it comes to art competitions, it’s hard to argue with ArtPrize. It is big enough to attract artists from around the world. It is big enough to host more than 1,500 entries, and it is big enough to turn the heads of movers and shakers in the art world – and I do mean “world.”

But here’s the thing: It won’t mean diddly if you’ve never heard of the competition or if you don’t know how it works, so consider this your inside scoop.

“But, dearest Curmudgeon,” you ask, “What qualifies YOU to expound on ArtPrize?”

I may not know a ton about the economic side of the event or the wrangling of benefactors and brains it takes to pull off such a behemoth of a competition, but for years I have attacked the event from lots of other angles. Yearly, I mine for information and visually relate that knowledge to the readers of MLive Media Group (, a major newspaper group. For a time, I did a bit of art reviewing of the event, and I participate in ArtPrize as an artist. It’s also in my back yard. I have become intimate with it all – beauty marks and bunions included.

ArtPrize is more of an organic thing than some realize, and whatever subtle changes come along each year affect major portions of the competition. Still, there are some constants. Sort of.


Apparently, they are meant to be ignored. Originally, the border was a rigid rectangle of streets surrounding three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. All venues were located within that area. A couple of years into the event and the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park were included as part of ArtPrize territory. Never mind the fact that they are miles out of bounds. I know the Gardens are a hefty patron of the arts and are a national hot spot, but perhaps the planet Pluto should be included, too, if it ever gets colonized by artists. Oh, and a second venue popped up out of bounds for this year’s competition. See what I mean about boundaries?

An “Open” Competition

I put that word in quotes because ArtPrize will certainly take your $50 entry fee. Oh, you wanted to compete? Not so fast. First, you need to “connect” with a venue. This part is nerve-wracking for artists. It’s like sending out resumes into a void,  hoping to be hosted by a venue, while the days tick away toward deadline. And being an open competition doesn’t necessarily mean it’s open to YOU. Some swankier venues go searching for their own artists who otherwise couldn’t care less about ArtPrize. Those same venues have artistic reputations to uphold, and they don’t want commoners or serfs spoiling their hallowed walls, thank you very much.

A Prize Purse bigger than the Zeppelin

This is part of what makes ArtPrize successful. And ridiculous. The purse is huge. The total yearly purse hovers around $500,000, but it can grow well beyond that, based on other prizes and grants that get thrown into the mix by outside benefactors. Other art competitions with reputable names dot the globe – The Turner Prize, The Kandinsky Prize and The Carnegie Art Award, to name a few – but ArtPrize came out of nowhere with cash enough to dwarf them collectively. Yes, the carrot is big, and that’s what makes artists scurry out of the woodwork and head to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in mid-September.

More than the Carrot

If an artist comes to the event with only a prize in mind, he is a fool. There is much more to ArtPrize than money, and I don’t mean hob nobbing with cyan-haired women or hanging with people who use the word “esoteric” with abandon. This is a rare chance for artists to see their adoring masses face-to-face. Even if you can’t draw to save your life, SOMEone will love what you do. It’s a good bet that at least one day out of the two and a half weeks will give cause to feel good about your art – whether that means painting like nobodies’ business or replicating the Sistine Chapel ceiling with dryer lint. (Yes, it’s been done.) The fact is: This is by far the most you’ll ever get out of a $50 entry fee – if you end up in a good venue.

Good Venue/Bad Venue

Location, location, location. An artist once hauled his crap all the way from Germany, and then proceeded to piss and moan about his venue and the lack of attention his piece got. He didn’t do his homework. Just because a venue is in-bounds doesn’t mean crowds will throng there. Some venues get a hundred thousand viewers or more during the event, and some will get a few score. There are so many pieces to see – too many, actually – that patrons will go to larger venues in close proximity  and ignore smaller, scattered venues. It’s common sense. And who wants to go into a restaurant to look at a nice piece hanging over table #10, where someone is relishing their Sauteed Duck Foie Gras? Not me. More common sense.

The Public Has the Vote. Does not. Does Too.

Originally, ArtPrize was based solely on a public vote to decide which piece was the crème de la crème. It was a cool idea, but votes began leaning toward “pedestrian” taste – you know: Crappy art. So elitists pushed to have jurors, too. Folks with art credentials a mile long and poor taste got to make their picks based on “cutting edge” esthetics – you know: Crappy art. Anyway, at this writing, entries get prizes from the public AND judges, meaning the big Kahuna prize has been watered down a bit.

The big Kahuna

Let me state it here: I won’t turn down the top prize if, by some humongous miracle, I happen to win it. That being said, it should also be stated that the biggest carrot is just plain stupid. Nothing ever came out of ArtPrize that is actually worth that much money. To wit, one need only do a bit of research to see what REAL art is fetching. Honestly, it’s possible to snag a piece done by one of the masters for less cash than ArtPrize has under their sofa cushions.

ArtPrize is Edjamacational

No matter how you spell it, ArtPrize is a great learning experience. Not only is it good stuff for artists who enter, but it’s even better for folks who don’t know much about art, and it’s also great for kids. Thankfully, local schools take advantage of the event. Most mornings and early afternoons are jammed with students running amok, trying to amass collections of artist’s business cards, while their teachers feebly attempt to explain foreign concepts like “composition” and “DON’T RUN!” Mid- to late-afternoons are filled with the baby stroller crowd and older folks. Evenings fill up with hipsters, college students, blue collar workers, and well-heeled folk headed to the symphony. And then there’s always the quirky convention crowd – grown adults racing around with scavenger hunt lists, trying to find art or get artist’s signatures. Weirdies.

The Art

At one point I coined the name “KitschPrize.” It still holds for some pieces. Anytime the Ripley’s Believe it or Not folks come around – and believe me, they shop at ArtPrize like it’s an outlet mall – you know things can get out of control. Photo reproductions done with a million sequins. Or corks. Or push-pins. Or Rubik's cubes. Been there, done that. I’m waiting for packing peanuts and elbow macaroni. Oh, and did I mention large? This isn’t the place for miniatures. Anything larger than NASA’s rocket assembly building might be considered by a venue. And if you can’t get paper large enough for your same-scale drawing of planet Earth, simply scotch tape it together. Or use Gorilla Tape. Or penny nails. No one will notice. Not even the judges. Oh, and “Art” has expanded to include music and street performers trying to act like hideous statues, but I’m not going to even talk about that.

Don’t Miss it

I have plenty of negative things to say about ArtPrize, but don’t let my curmudgeonly words dissuade you from coming to the event or entering as an artist. I have far more positive things to say about the event, and it would be silly to dismiss the competition as not being worth the time or energy. I mean, where else can one see thousands of artists baring their souls and displaying months of effort for all to see? In many cases you can talk with the artist, who will be working the crowd for a few votes. This year I will again be among them. I’ll probably be handing out piles of business cards with a voting number, and schmoozing with anyone who wants to stop and ask about my piece – even cyan-haired women. So please consider this an invitation to join the ArtPrize masses spilling into the streets. Give yourself a heavy dose of art, and, if you find me, see what an Art Curmudgeon can do. If you simply cannot make the trip to Grand Rapids, then go to and get a good taste of the event, take a peek at this year’s art, and read a little about the artists.

The Art Curmudgeon, aka Edward Riojas, will be showing his piece, “Under Slottet Bron,” at DeVos Place Convention Center, 303 Monroe Ave. NW, during ArtPrize. His piece is considerably smaller than NASA’s rocket assembly building, and is not made with macaroni. Darn.

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