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Hey?!?! Did anyone else notice the elephant on the top of that building?

Although still on Sheldon Boulevard, the UICA's taken advantage of its new building to post what it calls "daily thoughts."

Although still on Sheldon Boulevard, the UICA's taken advantage of its new building to post what it calls "daily thoughts." /All images used with special permission from the UICA

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It takes about one hour to put up each daily message

It takes about one hour to put up each daily message

Social commentary on art has been taken to a new level during ArtPrize, literally. The top of the new Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts building was being used to make statements designed to further the dialog about art, though it seems that not everyone noticed. It’s a testament to the event itself. There was so much to see, from the art, to the people downtown, that 10-foot tall, bright red messages posted on the top of a building could be overlooked.

While being propelled down Fulton by the flow of the mob, I looked up to find the building across the street talking to me. It said, “Try Harder.”

And I thought, “I can’t.”

I tweeted, I posted, and I hash-tagged with the best of them. I talked to artists, tracked the Top 100, and hunted venues like wild game as I tried to absorb it all. Our friends began referring to my wife as an ArtPrize Widow. I participated.

It turns out the building wasn’t talking to me alone but to all of us. Other statements included, “Is Ugly OK?” and “Look Inside.” These open-ended statements by the UICA staff were hung in response to the crowds as well as the vote tallies.

Now that the top 10 have been announced I understand what the building was trying to say. Not everyone chose to be a part of the grand art experiment on a grand scale. Many were participating on a more topical level. With almost 70 percent of the top 25 being represented at three venues, and 60 percent of the top 10 visible from the street, it begs the question: How hard did people try? It could be that these venues were curated exceedingly well with the public opinion taken into consideration as much as the value of the art work on its own visual merit. But, more than likely, people only sought out what was trending high and locations where they could see the most work without venturing off the beaten path.

In it to the end

In talking with artists during the past few weeks I noticed a common thread. They were both exhilarated and exhausted, depending on how the daily voting or crowd was trending, which is understandable. Let me explain why.

For a typical art exhibition, artists will spend countless hours in solitude working. They then have to work on all the details and logistics for exhibition, from promotional materials to how the work will be displayed to the completion of the instillation itself. After that is done, there still may be a reception to attend, and small talk to make. But, for the most part, they can now relax because it is out of their hands.

Not so with ArtPrize. Once the voting opens, the race begins. Some artists did not fully understand that a big part of ArtPrize can be an exhausting marathon of pitching their work to the public in the style of an art festival and simultaneously a competition. Even artists I normally consider hyper were looking worn and subdued by the time round one voting ended last Wednesday. Some were caught off guard, others blindsided, but a few chose the hard sell.

What is the hard sell? More than just talking to people about the art they created and feel passionate about, the hard sell takes the form that people normally associate with barkers at a carnival. ArtPrize has added a new dimension to the world of art competitions, one where the viewer must seek out the voice of the artist as well as the art through the shouting of the crowd.

Were some pieces overlooked? Surely. Did other work benefit from a prime location? Of course. Did everything belong in the competition? Without a doubt.

Art is the use of skill and imagination to create. We can discuss aesthetics and the distinction between decorative and fine art or even outsider art. But the name of the game is ArtPrize. Like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. And though you may not be happy with the decisions of the masses, the very definition of art validates these choices.

If you are still not happy, I offer this to organizers, voters, venues, and artists: “Try Harder.” I know I will.

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Wow.  There is some amazing work in GR right now.  I am so bummed I couldn't make it up there this year.  Cheers to all of the artists and especially Nathan Kukla.  I can't wait for your art department to rule the world!  ; )

Hi Jessie,
Thanks for your comments.

I'm glad you point out that there are some truly amazing works of art in Grand Rapids right now. In a week they will be gone.

The ephemeral nature of the event stands in contrast to how we, as viewers, normally experience collections of art in a traditional setting.

 Art may be in the mind of the beholder but not all minds are created equal.

You are right Richard. But, if all minds were created equal there would be no need for dialog for there would be no need for discourse. are you saying ArtPrize is good because people who don't know anything about art can have a dialog with people that do know something about art? 

No, that is what you are saying. I was trying to defuse your condescending remarks.

I chose the word 'eye' to keep the dialog on aesthetics. You replaced it with 'mind' to make it a question of intelligence.

Note that I am not using knowledge and intelligence synonymously.


I don't know squat about sports and I'd be foolish to pretend I do.

 It is a question of intelligence. I don't think it makes any difference whether  the aesthetic experience takes place in the eye or the mind. The point of my comment is to simply state that not everyone has the same type of aesthetic experience nor are we all equally knowledgeable to be able to understand what is going on.  I'm not saying anyone can't become knowledgeable, I'm just saying we are not all equal in that matter. Is that being condescending ?  I'd say it's just being realistic. 

I appreciate your comments, but must still respectfully disagree with you on this issue.

To use the logic you have put forth a persons intellegence could be just as easily be judged based their knowledge or apperciation of sports. What I find condesceding is the assessment of another persons worth or intellegence based on an arbitrary personal bias.

My point with this article is that we can all try harder. That there is room for improvement at all levels. And that I believe is a realistic statement.


I am talking about ones knowledge of a particular field. I'm not sure why you taking it to mean a person's general intelligence. I'm an intelligent person but I don't know squat about sports. Beauty or ones idea of art is in the mind of the beholder. Some people are knowledgeable about it, and some aren't. That's not a judgement. That's a fact. ArtPrize says it doesn't matter if your knowledgeable or not, just vote. Thatdoesn't seem to intelligent to me.

Thank you for clarifying your point. I appreciate your reply and apologize for my misunderstanding.