When Donald Trump stumbled into last year’s ArtPrize competition, he was still a long-shot presidential candidate running what looked like a losing campaign.
He had made an unannounced visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum to pay his respects to the former president and first lady Betty Ford, who are buried there, before meeting with some of west Michigan’s powerful GOP donor class. The city was in the middle of ArtPrize, the annual arts competition that attracts roughly a half-million visitors each autumn to downtown Grand Rapids, where the museum is one of the busiest venues.
Trump listened while a TV reporter explained the basics of ArtPrize. Founded in 2009 by tech magnate Rick DeVos, a grandson of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, the competition has become the world’s best-attended art event and among its most lucrative.
Premised on “radical” openness — any adult who can find a downtown venue can enter as an artist — its innovation is a disruptive, populist twist: Half of its more than $500,000 prize purse is handed out by public vote.
While Trump is not scheduled to visit ArtPrize Nine, which gets underway in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, he will be present in spirit — and on plenty of canvases — as artists, and the event’s organizers, grapple with his unexpected electoral victory and the reverberations through the art world of the divisive early months of his presidency.
“It’s a good year for political art because the political climate of the country now compared to the previous eight ArtPrizes makes the political nature of all art much harder to ignore,” said Kevin Buist, ArtPrize director of exhibitions. “Artists don’t bring politics into it, they cue you to the fact that politics is always there.”
As such, several of this year’s 1,300-plus entries connect front-and-center with national issues. An exhibition called “Investigation Pending,” housed at the Cerasus Studio in Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood, features works by nine artists that react to different aspects of life in Trump’s America.
Among them is Ypsilanti’s Madhurima Ganguly, who was born and raised in India and is one of about 50 metro Detroit artists in the competition. Her entry, “Shimmering Creed Shine Brightest,” is a group of five paintings in response to themes that have emerged during the Trump campaign and administration, including misogyny, power and concern for the future of humanity.
“We are responsible for the governments we choose,” Ganguly said. She said her work encourages viewers to think about their individual role in the political process and how their decisions affect neighbors of different backgrounds.
“When this administration came into power, the whole way many people see America changed. But the change is not that sudden for me,” she said. “As a brown person, I’m very afraid to travel. I’m a legal immigrant, and I have to go through a whole process every time I go to India.”
The ideas are flowing
The Grand River flowing through downtown is home to two entries that use the water itself as a canvas to deliver timely messages.
Ryan Spencer Reed, a Ludington-based photographer, and Richard App, a gallery owner in Grand Rapids, collaborated on “Oil+Water,” which uses a floating surface to present what looks like an oil slick. The surface contains a billboard-sized photo Reed captured when he visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation during recent protests against efforts to build an oil pipeline through disputed lands.
“Our original sin as a nation today is having appropriated lands and committed genocide and taken what we have. We’re also talking about fossil fuel dependency, climate change and the fact that future generations will be fighting wars over water, not oil,” Reed said. “I’m hopeful that the piece will resonate with Michiganders in a particular way, from the standpoint that we have our own issues with water.”
The other river installation, “SOS (Safety Orange Swimmers)” was first created in 2016 in response to the worldwide refugee crisis. The work consists of 22 life-size floating orange humanoid figures — representing the more than 22 million refugees in the world — clinging to flotation tubes.
Ann Hirsch, half of the Boston-based A+J Art & Design team behind the project, said the entry’s meaning has expanded in 2017, as immigration has returned to the forefront of national debate.
“That’s been an interesting transformation in the past year, the context that the piece originally existed in and what it exists in now,” said Hirsch, who created the installation with her partner, Jeremy Angier. “Human migration is a part of what we do and who we are. Now, because of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, it’s people moving because they’re in danger.”
Buist said the shifting political winds have put ArtPrize itself at a philosophical crossroads. The event began the same year Barack Obama was inaugurated, and it coincided with a wider trend toward tech-enabled social connectivity. Within the past year, a lot of that digital-era confidence has eroded amid anxieties about data theft, election hacking and social-media-empowered bigotry.
“ArtPrize at that time was a part of a larger cultural phenomenon that was optimistic and very excited about the idea of how technology could be used to rethink audiences’ access to the arts,” Buist said. “Now it’s a process of learning what about that optimism was correct and what about that optimism was totally unfounded. There is still something really powerful about giving everybody a voice.”
ArtPrize continues to refine the larger “conversation” it promotes between the public and the art world. It started in 2009 with only a public vote. Now, the prize money is equal for the public and jury favorites. This year, the second round of voting will combine the top 20 public choices with another 20 jurors’ selections in the categories of 2D, 3D, time-based and installations into a single pool from which both groups can make their final choices.
The event, meanwhile, has its own politics to contend with. ArtPrize received its initial funding from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation (Rick DeVos’ parents). The association with one of the most prominent families in national conservative politics has long created friction within the art world, presenting challenges for artists who choose to participate despite disagreeing.
That tension often is on display in ArtPrize work. An entry this year by Patricia Constantine, an illustration professor at Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids, offers a critique of the education system under Trump and Betsy DeVos, who is now the nation’s Education Secretary.
Her entry, “Sineater,” on display at Grand Rapids Community College’s Collins Art Gallery, is a mixed-media triptych. Presented using carnivalesque imagery, its middle panel is a self-portrait that conveys the artist’s guilt about teaching within a system that buries students in debt. Images of Trump and Betsy DeVos also appear with the phrases “I want to build a wall” and “No free lunch,” respectively.
“I don’t agree with her as someone who is overseeing education. I don’t think she understands what it means when she starts to limit things or take things away, like a free lunch for a child,” Constantine said. “The DeVos family is a big name around here, and they give a lot of money to a lot of different things, and that’s really wonderful. But that doesn’t mean that they’re immune to criticism.”
“This absolutely should be the venue for that,” she continued. “The whole history of art is about questioning and challenging, not just making pretty things.”
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