The Grand Rapids ArtPrize is called the largest ArtPrize® in the world and folks in Grand Rapids are proud of that. It is known for bringing art from around the world to the town of Grand Rapids where the artists compete for over half a million dollars in cash prizes. In bringing so much art to town, they also bring tourists and their money to the long depressed Michigan economy. In recent years it has been a celebration of art, music, culture, and diversity, but this year it has left many people saying that it isn’t the same as in past years. While biking through the streets of Grand Rapids and listening to the welcoming shouts of “Stay off the street!” and “Don’t ride on the sidewalk!” this evening, this writer contemplated this observation.
As past ArtPrize visitors walk the streets of Grand Rapids, they notice that there are large, empty spaces in front of Van Andel Arena, on Grand Valley State University’s DeVos Center, and in front of DeVos Place. In DeVos place on the main floor where there are large, empty sections of wall that once held art. Were there no artists that requested space there?
As this writer mulled over that emptiness and wondered why, he took a turn that led to the door of the area where the Grand Rapids Symphony was about to release. Before stepping a foot in this lobby area a woman came running and shouting, “This is for the Symphony only! You can’t come in here! There is no ArtPrize in here!” In seconds security arrived to ensure the Symphony lobby was not profaned.
Later a third year ArtPrize entrant who had been displayed in DeVos Place in 2013 indicated that they never responded to his request to display his art there. Across the street from the nearly bare DeVos Place sidewalks are some lovely statuary, including one a nude female of steel, though you will have to look behind the huge planter that blocks its view from the street.
Also across from DeVos Place, if you know to take the stairs to the roof level above the first floor of city hall you will find more art. Once on the roof there is more of the building and you have to go around to the back of that portion of the building as the other doors are locked. The first artwork you encounter is a series of portraits of African-American men in hoodies with the text indicating they are husbands, fathers, doctors, lawyers, and various other productive men of our society.
Just around the corner from that is a Triptych of courtroom drawings. Further down the hall are the works of two gentleman from Haiti. One of their works calls to mind the recent earthquake that devastated Haiti but, unfortunately it is a multimedia presentation and you cannot see it during the day in the well lit corridor. The other includes sculpture that celebrates motherhood in Haiti. Next, after these two gentlemen, is the a triptych that honors the three hundred female students who were recently kidnapped by terrorists in the artists homeland of Nigeria.
Going on from there you find a series of twenty-eight Warhol-esque images called “Candidate 2008.” Originally it had been titled “Obama 28” but was declared too political so the artist renamed it. After a number of rejections the artwork found a place in City Hall. This remarkable piece includes a beautiful image that is reminiscent of an iconic image of President Lincoln yet is President Obama. Another image includes a rubbing of an old “Colored Waiting Area” sign from back when segregation was considered a social issue.
Beyond the “Candidate 2008” display is a beautiful piece that includes braille by a lovely African-American woman and then some wonderful statuary by an African-American student from the Detroit side of the state. Under normal circumstances it would seem unnecessary and, perhaps, inappropriate to mention the racial/cultural background of the artists but the ArtPrize site says, “Social responsibility lives at the heart of what we do, who we are, and how we plan to grow. Art is for everyone, so intentional inclusion is critical to the vision of ArtPrize. We are actively working to remove barriers to engagement and welcome a more racially and ethnically diverse audience.” This venue has Haitian, Nigerian, Mexican, Indian, Philippine, and African-American artists. There may be one or two artists who were not of a racial or ethnic minority, but if so, they were not present and their information gave no hint.
The artists were unanimous that they were honored to have their art displayed at ArtPrize and grateful to the staff at City Hall for providing them a venue in this hidden floor of ArtPrize. However, to this National Art and Social Issues Examiner, such a concentration of the racial and ethnic diversity of ArtPrize would seem more of a throwback to the Colored Waiting Areas of old than evidence of the ArtPrize commitment to social equity.
Prior to ArtPrize 2014 there were homeless folks sleeping on the streets outside some of the venues which inspired an instagram post speculating on how the homelessness issue would be dealt with during ArtPrize. Saturday evening an ArtPrize artist arrived to be present at the show, but he hadn’t received confirmation on a host family. He contacted the ArtPrize staff who suggested that he find a motel for the evening and that they would facilitate placement with a host family on Sunday. After not being able to find a vacancy in the downtown motels he was at a loss and it was suggested he speak with a passing Grand Rapids Downtown Ambassador.
The Downtown Ambassador made a few calls and confirmed that the nearby motels were packed and offered to escort him to the local homeless shelter. He asked if they had food there and was told that no, he would have to eat before he went there. When she was asked if her agency could provide him a ride if a room could be found for him beyond walking distance she declined saying they don’t do that. The following day ArtPrize staff was again unable to provide the artist with a host family saying, “We don’t provide housing we facilitate it.” Similarly, they don’t assign the venues, they facilitate the placements.
Is it fair to criticize the Grand Rapids ArtPrize for allowing segregation and homelessness among the artists? Perhaps not. They don’t promote the segregation and homelessness, they just facilitate it. As this writer was wandering around the city hall venue he saw a series of signs that had been taken down to provide space for the artists. These included some of the things that make Grand Rapids great like, “More books are published here on Christian topics than anywhere else in the world.” and “1949 – Helen Claytor was elected President of the Grand Rapids YWCA. She was the first African American YWCA President anywhere…”
Perhaps it is time for the folks of the City of Grand Rapids to read some of the literature they publish and to remember their historical roots. Oh, and the “homeless” artist? He had a fine dinner at the TGI – Fridays just up the street and then spent his first two nights in Grand Rapids on the couch of a National Art Examiner.