Elephant Walk

ArtPrize 2010 was a huge success, pulling over 1,700 artists into Grand Rapids from 14 different countries to display art in over 190 venues and over 465,000 community members cast their votes to pick this year’s Top Ten ArtPrize winners.

Started in 2009 by Richard Devos of Grand Rapids, ArtPrize is meant to bring the world’s art community and the Grand Rapids community together as an open forum for conversation and appreciation of art.

• ArtPrize is the only art contest that allows entries from anyone in the world; no art degree required

• ArtPrize provides the largest prize of any art competition in the world

• ArtPrize is the only art competition that is open to a public vote

How it works

There are three elements that make up ArtPrize; venues, artists, and voters.

Venues are businesses throughout downtown Grand Rapids, within a certain geographical limit, that show artists’ work during the two weeks of ArtPrize. Artists are allowed one entry and they must secure one of the almost 200 venues to host their piece in order to be a competitor. Voters are everyday people who attend ArtPrize, see something they like and vote for it through internet, text, or a downtown voting center.

This type of voting system has never before been used for an art contest. Normally there would be a jury of elite art professionals, all with PhD’s and Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees. MSU Associate Professor of Electronic Art & Intermedia Adam Brown said, “I think it’s a fresh venue. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but it’s different. It provides the public with a voice.”

In the first week of competition attendees are allowed to vote as many times as they wish. ArtPrize artist, Lesley Van Leeuwen-Vega, says that this practice makes the first week a bit more trivial, and results in a lot of “cake and ice cream” votes from parents attempting to please their children. The first week tends to favor pieces that are a “big spectacle” rather than genuinely good pieces of art. The top ten is announced at the end of the first week of voting.

In the second week of viewing, voters are allowed only one vote, if someone votes more than once, only the most recent vote will be counted. Van Leeuwen-Vega says that despite some criticism from the art community, “people really think about where their one vote will go,” and she added that, “things aren’t less special because you don’t have a Masters of Fine Arts.”

After the second week of voting, the Top 10 are put in descending order and awarded their perspective prizes. The art then remains at the venues for a few more days for the general enjoyment of the public. Some of the entries remain in downtown Grand Rapids even after ArtPrize is over, such as last years’ mosaic on the side of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

Conversations in the Art Community

Recently, Kendall College professor, Deb Rockman, came forward, as she did in 2009, with her concerns about whether the average person knows how to accurately judge art. Rockman is quoted to have said, “It’s great that they have such an interest, but they often don’t have the base of knowledge to make an informed judgment.”

Helping Mom One Penny at a Time

Other professionals disagree with Rockman’s assessment. Former Kendall professor, Harry Kutten, said, “Average citizens can determine if they are moved by [art].” Van Leeuwen-Vega adds that “people know how they feel about things.”

MSU alumni and ArtPrize artist, Bree Gomez said, “I think that everyone is entitled to an opinion. When dealing with public art, people are very important. This isn’t a gallery.”

Gomez also said, “Art doesn’t have to be conceptually so deep that people don’t understand it.”

Kutten and Van Leeuwen-Vega also noted that there are plenty of art competitions that involve paneled judging; ArtPrize is just not one of them. (There is a jury of art professionals who recognize entries from different categories; however, these winners do not receive a cash prize).

ArtPrize offers a unique opportunity to anyone and everyone. As far as ArtPrize is concerned, “Everyone is an artist,” said Kutten.

As some criticize and others praise the system and intentions of ArtPrize, it becomes unclear what the future of the event will hold. “I don’t know if it will [grow] in the art world, the ‘art world’ is complicated,” said Brown. “It is definitely growing the arts in Michigan, but as far as putting Michigan on the map in the art world, I’m not sure.”

The Big Picture

Unlike most art contests, ArtPrize is not all about the winnings. The prize gets artists to Grand Rapids, the art gets people to Grand Rapids and the people start talking about art and spending money in downtown Grand Rapids. Allowing the public to vote forces viewers to think more critically about art; what they are drawn to and what moves them.

Kutten says that the purpose of the event is “to encourage the value of art.”

“[ArtPrize] seems to be good for the economy of Michigan,” said Brown. During last year’s event, restaurants ran out of food and were forced to close early because the downtown area was so busy.

Gomez said, “[ArtPrize is] very beneficial to GR. It helps people get to know what’s in Grand Rapids and gives support to local businesses.”


Recognition of any kind is very important to artists. The field of art is highly competitive and often elitist. One of the reasons that ArtPrize is so appealing to aspiring artists is that anyone can enter and everyone has a chance to win.

Bree Gomez

Bree Gomez took studio art courses at MSU in her freshman year of college before transferring to the Art Institute of Chicago. Gomez said she “didn’t want to go” but the school offered programs in the arts that were not offered at MSU.

She recently received her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts with an emphasis on sculpture and design from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Gomez entered ArtPrize in both 2009 and 2010 and shared her reasoning for entering: “I wanted to get exposure as an up and coming artist.” She also added, “[ArtPrize] is a good opportunity to see how work works with the public, it let’s artists see if [they’re] going in the right direction.”

Her entry Accord was shown in front of the Grand Rapids Art Museum and received Top 25 recognition.

“I feel happy to get that far up on the voting, at the same time it would have been nice to have a chance in the top ten,” said Gomez.

Accord is an interactive piece which responds to movement with light and sound. It is a “stagnant sculpture that communicates,” said Gomez. “There is dialog within the piece, but only if you interact with it.”

Gomez says that Accord is meant to promote “subliminal healing through light and sound.” She refers to the piece as “positive art.”

Harry Kutten

Harry Kutten received his MFA from Western Michigan University and was an art professor at Kendall College.

Kutten decided to enter ArtPrize this year because he said he felt it was time to do more than just teach. “I want to encourage people to enjoy art and to see the beauty that I see,” said Kutten. “I wanted to share what I felt with others.”

The pastel drawing Ballet Dancer, by Harry Kutten showed in the Blue Cross Blue Shield building during ArtPrize.

Kutten explained that he has always enjoyed ballet. “It’s a form of communication to an audience without language,” said Kutten. “They express a feeling of beauty in dance form.”

For Ballet Dancer, Kutten was allowed to sit in on a rehearsal. He was struck by the sight of an exhausted dancer who sat down, but with the feeling of inevitably getting back up to continue dancing. This feeling is what he wanted to depict in his piece.

Lesley Van Leeuwen-Vega

Lesley Van Leeuwen-Vega entered ArtPrize after encouragement from other artists and the realization that she had something important to say.

Her piece, The Coalition for Responsible American Policy, uses advertising tactics to put a positive spin on ideas that are generally seen as negative in our society. She makes homophobia, racism and sexism sound like good ideas.

The intent was to get people to “try to understand what’s going on.” With so many ads being thrown at people every day, Van Leeuwen-Vega wondered if people notice what ads really say. Her piece forces the viewer to think critically about what is being said.

Find out more about other artists and see a list of the Top Ten ArtPrize winners for 2010

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