Amanda Carmer

How to Prize

Amanda Carmer
How to Prize

#ArtPrize2016 #DeVosPlace #WomensCityClub

Most wall-less readers are likely involved in the GR art community and need no introduction to ArtPrize. In fact, you are probably not reading this because you’re so busy installing, promoting, curating, or making work for ArtPrize Eight because it opens in just a few weeks. Stay strong, my friends.

On the off chance that you’re not familiar with ArtPrize, you’ll need some background info. Read these first:

I must confess, I dread ArtPrize. I loath the throngs of people that invade downtown Grand Rapids, who wander the streets slack jawed and bumbling, repeating variations of “Where’s the art? Is this ArtPrize?” to each other or to noone. I am weary of the debates over aesthetic and conceptual value versus economic development. And I straight-up hate the inevitable disappointment I feel after all my efforts (weeks of installing, months of planning and prep, and years of commitment to a creative practice) are responded to with a nasally sounding “ooooo neat!” from some good-intentioned but utterly uninformed visitor who’s only looking for the biggest, shiniest, most photo-realistic monstrosity they can find and simply being polite to everything/everyone they don’t understand. But this year is different. This year I’m not exhibiting, not curating, not coordinating a venue. I’m going to enjoy myself, which means that I’m going to actually see other venues and talk to artists and curators, and try to ignore the ‘wheresthearts. To kick off my AP experience (and hopefully yours as well), I want to provide an inside look at how an AP exhibition comes together. How does the curator choose a venue? How do they identify and enact a theme for the exhibition? How do they choose artwork and then get the work up on the wall? I visited two venues and spoke with their curators; Eddie Tadlock at DeVos Place Convention Center and Fred Bivins at Women’s City Club. Here we go…

I walked over to DeVos Place to meet Eddie on a very rainy day last week and he walked me through DeVos Place. The building actually houses multiple venues--the convention center and the performance hall--and takes up more than 200,000 square feet downtown on the Grand River, it’s massive. Eddie is the Assistant General Manager of Devos Place, DeVos Performance Hall, and Van Andel Arena so my first assumption was that he would pass my request for an interview to an assistant but he was quick to return my emails and offered to show me around himself. If you’ve never been inside DeVos Place during an exhibition (and they host a few throughout the year) you should go. Especially if you’re an art student or a purest. DeVos Place is not your ideal gallery-type venue. It’s deceptively large with sweeping architectural elements, exposed support structures painted white, lots of natural light, and very, very high ceilings. The exhibition spaces are, as Eddie describes them, essentially long hallways that run the perimeter of the second floor around the venue’s 3-story lobby and continue through high traffic areas between the convention center and the performance hall. These hallways are sometimes lit with track lights and sometimes not. Like I said, it’s not an ideal gallery space, but it’s the type of venue that purchases artwork each year.  Eddie is conscious of how these conditions affect each piece he chooses, as any curator would be. He has a background in design, economics, and public relations and came to Grand Rapids from Seattle to work for DeVos in 2008. He currently serves on the boards of Grand Rapids Art Museum, the city’s Arts Advisory Commission, West Michigan Jazz Society, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, and WGVU Engage an arts committee. So Eddie is a connected guy, I got the sense that he’s a pro at managing logistics and building relationships as we spoke. He candidly described past ArtPrize experiences characterized by special requests from artists, the difficulty of gauging quality via the AP website in the process of selecting work, and a few instances in which reps from AP asked him to consider hosting artists who hadn’t been picked up by other venues very near to the deadline. When I asked about the need for that sort of intervention, he suggested that AP coordinators sometimes invite nationally / internationally recognized artists to participate and either because those artists aren’t actively seeking a venue, because they weren’t picked up by their top choice venue, or because they are particularly difficult to work with, they need a little extra handling. There is definitely a notion among some artists that their venue and placement within the venue predetermines their success or failure. Eddie has been snubbed by artists who believe that DeVos Place isn’t high-traffic enough or high-art enough. He’s also hosted a number of award winners in past years including one grand prize winner in 2011. But Eddie isn’t picky. One of the things I was most interested to know was how curators of large / high traffic venues choose artwork. We talked around this question at first and finally, after my suggestions of subject matter or size Eddie said, “Just because it’s big doesn’t mean it’s good,” and established a place in my heart forever. When year after year we consistently see large-scale works selected by both the public and the jurors it’s refreshing to hear the coordinator of a large venue acknowledge the value small works. As we walked along the balcony that overlooks the convention center lobby, called the Grand Hall, Eddie described both large and small scale pieces that had received lots of public attention in past years not because of where they were placed, though he cited this as a major concern of many artists, but because of the technical skill demonstrated and the artist’s personal story. Eddie assigns each artist a place within the hall, he provides a video tutorial about the installation process, he allows some artists to hang their own work and other’s simply ship it in. Still, he describes working with artists as ‘herding cats,’ some unexpected snag will inevitably happen.

In the end, I got the impression that Eddie isn’t interested in curating a message or making a statement so much as he is interested in filling the space with art objects of all kinds that feel appropriate for the space. The collection he’s assembled this year supports my theory, at Devos you’ll see an eclectic mix of subject matter and materials including a 4x24 foot long painting of a woodland scene called Four Play by Charles Yoder that encompasses all four seasons and reminds me of a surreal cell phone panorama, a nude male torso with a broken pistol in place of the penis called Emasculation by Earl Senchuk, and a comparably small lathe-turned wooden bowl done in the illusionary style of a woven basket titled Ancient Arrowheads by Jim Rutledge, this piece is one of many artworks done by upper peninsula artists, 26 of whom will be featured at DeVos Place this year in a special UP Pavilion. I predict the standout piece at DeVos this year will be Marc Sijan’s ‘life-size hyperrealistic figurative sculpture in polyester resin and hand painted with oil,’ which is the only description he provides on the AP website, the only necessary information to provide because his sculptures speak for themselves. Sijan exhibited at Art Basel Miami this year and at Cuardo Museum in Dubai among others, and is regularly featured on fine art news sites like Hyperallergic and Blouin. I’ll let you make your own conclusions about Sijan’s work but I’ll hold him up as the ultimate example of what the public qualifies as success at ArtPrize. Looking through the remaining 50+ artworks it’s clear that there is no theme present and I left my conversation with Eddie feeling like I’d learned more about relationship building and the challenges of filling a space not build to house fine art than anything else. But of course Eddie isn’t an art historian and neither are most of the ‘curators’ or venue coordinators who choose artworks each year. These individuals remind me that art is not sacred and neither is the conversation or the market that surrounds it. As Eddie writes in the description of DeVos Place on the AP website, “Art is art when it is declared as such.”

In a way, ArtPrize is more closely connected to reality than the insular exhibitions I put on at Craft House when it was open on the Avenue for the Arts. AP reflects a multi-faceted social structure; it is supported and orchestrated by a small number of people, and on the outside it seems like everyone has an equal opportunity, though if you ask anyone actively participating they’ll tell you that’s not true.

No one knows this better than Fred Bivins, the godfather of grass-roots art exhibiting in Grand Rapids. This year, and almost every year since ArtPrize began, Fred is curating the Women’s City Club on the corner of Fulton and Lafayette Streets, a Lincoln-era mansion turned private club and restaurant, a venue that AP asked him to manage back in 2010. Fred is tall, articulate, and jovial and damn! can he mobilize volunteers. The day I met him at the WCC he was supervising a group of almost 20 who were covering the linoleum floor with temporary carpet tiles, step-one of many required to transfer the space into a gallery. They finished in less than an hour after which Fred talked me through his curatorial process and his past experiences with AP. Fred grew up in Grand Rapids and when asked about his entre into the arts he tells me about a fund-raiser he helped with in high school, he and his fellow Central High students raised $70 worth of 10 cent donuts to help bring Calder’s La Grande Vitesse to the city. He worked for GM as an industrial electrician and internal publication editor until 1999 when he retired at age 49. He and his wife have been the face of Festival for the Arts’ Regional Art Exhibition for many, many years and their connection to Festival dates back to the 70s. When I first moved to GR in 2011 and was just getting a feel for the arts community I heard three names come up on a regular basis and his was one of them. His AP venue also has a reputation for heavily featuring local artists. The reality of his line-up may be more diverse than that but Fred is a champion of the local community, for sure. The WCC also hosts a shop for artists to sell additional artworks during AP. When asked what qualities he looks for when choosing work he straight-up says, “good art,” and self-identifies as “old-school” in the sense that he prioritizes strong technical expertise over conceptual work. In that sense, his approach feels similar to Eddie’s. Fred went on to describe how he selects artworks to be arranged within the gallery space so as visitors wander through they will find many themes nestled within the larger show. Fred believes that a viewer should never be shocked or made to feel jolted by the clash of dissimilar works next to each other on the wall. The gallery that he constructs inside the Women’s City Club becomes a maze of mini-exhibitions and after the floor is set it takes volunteers many hours to bring in the walls (that are stored off-site), reconstruct and paint them before work can go up. Fred’s made a time-lapse to document the process, it’s amazing.

Of the 62 artists (and 5 musical performances) on view at WCC this year, I’m looking forward to a few pieces; Cherry @ Division by Linda Bassford, a 12x136 inch oil painting of an aerial view of South Division Ave looking north from the roof of Degage Ministries, a personally formative real-life place; small shoes by Sherry Fugua-Gibson, the closest thing to conceptual work I think you’ll find at WCC; and the 61x50 inch La Vie en “Roses” by Katherine Bourdon because I’m a sucker for those colors and domestic imagery. Each of these pieces are done with a high level of craftsmanship and technical skill (at least from what I can tell through photographs) and that’s something you can count on at WCC. Fred’s AP exhibitions may not get much attention for being flashy or shocking but they’re solid shows in terms of technique and representation. I’m reminded again of a micro- / macro- relationship; just as DeVos Place stands in for the art world as a whole, we can look at WCC as a placeholder for the ArtPrize experience--a massive amount of unpaid labor willingly provided by people who believe the outcome is worth the effort, a show that is debated for technical merit vs. conceptual prowess, and when the artists take their work home and the walls come down the cycle starts all over again. Welcome to ArtPrize. Of course the story over at the UICA, The Fed Galleries, and GRAM is completely different and Site:Lab is it’s own beast, but that’s a post for another day.

Throughout the coming weeks I’ll revisit these venues and photograph their install process, stay tuned for more!