By Troy Reimink

Ruben Ubiera, shirtless on a humid night in early September, runs back and forth across Front Avenue under US-131 in Grand Rapids, shaking a can of spray paint. The extensively dreadlocked Miami graffiti artist is mapping out an expansive mural that will cover 11 giant concrete panels on the north side of the freeway underpass, tracing the evolution of wall art — from prehistoric cave paintings to hieroglyphics to 1980s tagging to contemporary post-graffitism.

[blocktext align=”right”]Art in all thinkable media occupies any space that will hold it … It is exciting and unwieldy, troubling and perplexing, awe-inspiring and cringeworthy. It is the biggest and strangest arts competition on Earth.[/blocktext]His finished piece, “In Our Element,” is one of more than 1,500 works on display in ArtPrize, a citywide competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that is currently in its seventh year. Ubiera spent about two weeks working on it, beginning by outlining several large veiltail goldfish. He then deployed a lush aquamarine palette to unfurl a partly improvised background narrative surveying the historic and pop-culture touchstones — video games, cable TV, Darth Vader — that informed his artistic voice growing up.

“On the wall,” he tells me, “magic happens.”

During ArtPrize, magic happens on walls all over the city. It happens in the Grand River, on sidewalks and in empty offices, inside pubs and restaurants, in municipal plazas and parks, in bank and hotel lobbies, on sides of buildings, in churches, in museums, in pop-up galleries, on indoor and outdoor stages, in the sky. Art in all thinkable media occupies any space that will hold it, creating what the Detroit Metro Times called a “gallery on steroids.” It is exciting and unwieldy, troubling and perplexing, awe-inspiring and cringeworthy. It is the biggest and strangest arts competition on Earth.

Kate Gilmore - Higher Ground

Kate Gilmore – “Higher Ground” [credit: Katy Batdorff]

ArtPrize Seven, which started September 23 and continues through October 11, allows anyone with space inside a downtown area a little bigger than three square miles to curate an art show. Any artist of any skill level can show his or her work if a venue is willing to display it. Everyone is eligible for chunks of a half-million-dollar prize purse. In its most interesting innovation, ArtPrize has handed much of the power over its purse strings to the general public. Anyone 16 and older in Grand Rapids during the event can register to be a voter. And, regardless of background or education, each person’s opinion, expressed by a thumbs-up vote through a smartphone app or on the ArtPrize website, means as much as that of an art-history Ph.D.

The concept was launched to great fanfare in 2009. The founder of ArtPrize is Rick DeVos, a then-27-year-old tech impresario who is the grandson of Richard DeVos, billionaire cofounder of the Amway multilevel marketing company. Rick’s idea was to “reboot the conversation” between artists and the public by launching a citywide, “radically open” competition that would empower artist and layperson alike. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation (or, Rick’s parents) put up the initial prize money, to be awarded to the ten artists who attracted the most public votes of approval. Within that top 10, a second round of voting would determine how the money was divided. First place received $250,000, the biggest competition prize in the art world in dollars if not prestige.

ArtPrize has been a roaring success since the beginning. In 2013, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the competition generated $22 million in economic activity and drew nearly a quarter-million individual visitors to the city. Downtown parking revenues during ArtPrize alone could cover the first-place prize check. Last year, the Art Newspaper reported that ArtPrize attracted the highest daily attendance of any big-ticket art event, including festivals and biennials.

Michael Peoples - The Great Race

Michael Peoples – “The Great Race” [credit: Katy Batdorff]

“It was just this extremely simple concept, this disruptive and elegant idea,” ArtPrize Exhibitions Director Kevin Buist tells me the week before ArtPrize Seven kicks off. Buist had worked for a DeVos startup, a film-based social network called Spout, in the mid-to-late-2000s, and was part of the team that launched ArtPrize. “It was five to ten times as large as we thought it would be. Just the mass of public we were able to attract, we really didn’t expect it. This thing really struck a nerve. I would talk to people who lived outside Grand Rapids in the suburbs, and they hadn’t been downtown in 30 years before ArtPrize.”

This model has drawn both praise and suspicion from the art world and visiting media. “ArtPrize is a fantastic case study for public engagement with art,” says Sarah Urist Green, ArtPrize Seven’s juror for three-dimensional work and the former contemporary art curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “This is truly unprecedented.” New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz called ArtPrize “one of the best art experiences I have ever had.” The New York Times nicknamed it “Art Idol.” Dallas Magazine, whose home city will launch a franchise version of ArtPrize next year, derided it as “lowbrow, flyover-country opportunism,” And the late journalist Matthew Power, writing in GQ in 2012, called it “a carnivalesque bit of performance art in a provincial setting.”

[blocktext align=”left”]“It was just this extremely simple concept, this disruptive and elegant idea. It was five to ten times as large as we thought it would be. Just the mass of public we were able to attract, we really didn’t expect it. This thing really struck a nerve.[/blocktext]For two-and-a-half weeks, Michigan’s second-largest city is awash in art. Crowds converge on museums. Arguments about the merits of various entries fill bars and coffee houses and online comment sections. Buses from every direction deposit school kids at major exhibition centers. The local media whip the city into a frenzy. ArtPrize dominates the front pages of the Grand Rapids Press, and its website heaves with photo galleries and videos. The city’s biggest TV station, the NBC-affiliated WOOD, broadcasts from the ground level of the Grand Rapids Art Museum as if it were the Today Show. ArtPrize branding is unavoidable. There are concerts and sponsor parties everywhere. This year there is a film festival. Local breweries make special craft beers for the occasion. Artists greet the public and pose for Instagram photos next to their work. Critical discussions of the major entries air live on local TV. When my friend Chris LaPorte, a Grand Rapids artist, won the contest in 2010, news vans parked in front of his house around the clock hoping to catch a candid interview.

The excitement is counterweighted by an intense cynicism from many in the community about the quality of the work, the effect of ArtPrize on the city’s arts scene, and the source of its original funding. The competition has attracted nicknames such as “JesusPrize,” “DragonPrize,” and “FartPrize” — for, respectively, the abundance of religious-themed entries, the ubiquity of large animal sculptures, and the amount of work that just stinks. Many of the popular entries through the years have stuck to a winning formula — big, hyperrealistic, technically masterful, resonant to local interests. In 2011, the big prize went to a mosaic of the crucifixion. A quilter’s textile tribute to the Sleeping Bear sand dunes was the popular winner in 2013. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not visits every year to buy wacky pieces for its collection. Twitter accounts and blogs over the years have existed solely to dispense ArtPrize snark — the greatest of them, a Tumblr called ArtPrize Worst, went silent three years ago.

Processing Fiber

“Processing Fiber” [credit: Katy Batdorff]

Meanwhile, it seems the art has been getting better — although, by design, this is impossible to quantify. Its second year, ArtPrize added juried prizes, and has steadily increased the role of arts professionals and the prominence of jurors’ awards since then. Lectures and panel discussions are heavily promoted and well-attended. The prize money is equal as of 2014: $200,000 to both the popular winner and the jury favorite. Instead of a straight top 10 based on the vote count, 20 popular finalists are named by category: two-dimensional, three-dimensional, time-based, and installation. A juried award goes to the best venue. ArtPrize also now distributes more than $200,000 in artist and venue support grants and curatorial fellowships to bring more credible work to the city.

After appearing to hit a critical nadir in 2013, ArtPrize rebounded in 2014 with a winner that took both the popular vote and a split jury decision: “Intersections,” a triumphant museum installation in which a light source inside a large, delicately carved cube projected intricate geometric patterns meant to evoke sacred Islamic spaces. Created by the Indianapolis-based, Pakistani-born artist Anila Quayyam Agha, the piece stunned audiences and jurors alike.

* * *

Thousands flocked downtown to ArtPrize Seven’s kickoff ceremony Sept. 23. Food trucks staked out the eastern edge of Rosa Parks Circle as lines began to form into the Grand Rapids Art Museum. After Grand Valley State University’s marching band performed Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” ArtPrize’s communications director, Todd Herring, announced that an hours-long website and app outage had been resolved, and voting could commence. Then there was a Bob Ross lookalike contest.

Though it is just as likely “Intersections” was a fluke, it seems ArtPrize’s brow still is inching upward, confirmed by visits to the tentpole venues and a few surprises off the beaten path (such as assertive exhibitions in an empty office space at 250 Monroe Avenue and at Western Michigan University’s satellite Grand Rapids campus). The SiTE:LAB venue — occupying a vacant city block in a manner strongly recalling Detroit’s famous Heidelberg project — features “State of Exception,” a staggering wall covered with nearly 1,000 backpacks recovered from the Sonoran Desert after being discarded by immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Brooklyn artist Tamara Kostianovsky has an installation at the Urban Institute For Contemporary Arts which uses found clothing to recreate a grisly slaughterhouse scene.

Armando Ramos - Kind Regards

Armando Ramos – “Kind Regards” [credit: Katy Batdorff]

Last year’s exhibition at Kendall College of Art and Design’s Fed Gallery was entirely about money. This year, the venue houses Oregon artist Julie Green’s “Last Supper,” a collection of 600 ceramic plates illustrated with the last meals of death-row inmates — which from a distance resemble Dutch delftware. Supplemental to that collection are two plate illustrations of the first meals eaten by former death-row prisoners after being exonerated. Juror Sarah Urist Green says she was “blown away” by “Last Supper” and immediately shortlisted it. “It tells a gutting story and does so in a way that humanizes individuals who were facing their last hours as a living person,” says Green (no relation to the artist), who created the PBS Digital Studios series “The Art Assignment.” “This one will stay with me for a long time.”

On Sunday, ArtPrize announced the public’s 20 favorite entries. Voters have until Thursday to pick favorites in each category. The grand prize and category winners for both the juried and and public competitions will be announced Friday at an awards gala. Just one entry, an interactive piece called “Whisper,” by Emily Kennerk, made the jury’s and the public’s list of favorites. Getting the public to agree with the art academics and professionals ultimately is not ArtPrize’s goal. The point, Buist says, is to keep them talking civilly. That has not always gone according to plan.

ArtPrize Founder Rick DeVos [credit: Michigan Municipal League]

ArtPrize Founder Rick DeVos [credit: Michigan Municipal League]

Deborah Rockman, a longtime artist, writer, and educator in Grand Rapids came by accident in 2009 to personify the divide between the types of art appraisal that ArtPrize was facilitating. She attended a lunchtime talk at Kendall College given by Rick DeVos and ArtPrize’s then-executive director, Jeff Meeuwsen, the day the top 10 entries were announced. Rockman found a microphone and voiced some misgivings that had been percolating among some of her artist friends, who had watched crowds and media flock to large, cartoonish entries. “I am heartsick at the idea that the top winners will be pieces that I do not consider art,” she said. “And I’m fearful that it’s going to make Grand Rapids, as a quote-unquote center for the arts, a joke. Many of my peers share this. We’re worried. And I’d really like to hear what you think about that.”

After some applause, DeVos replied that ArtPrize never intended to exclude experts, and that he hoped professionals would take a larger role in educating the public. WOOD-TV recorded the exchange. Rockman had to leave to teach a class, and the news crew followed her. Someone muttered the word “elitist” as she left. Commenters online called her far worse. When Rockman returned to ArtPrize the following year as a juror, she was escorted to and from her events as a precaution.

“I asked the question, and I could feel all hell breaking loose,” Rockman says, speaking from her office at Kendall, where she has taught for 33 years. “It became really clear that a lot of members of the public had no respect for a higher education in the arts. Having huge sums of money to be determined purely by the public vote, we knew that was going to be a problem. We were so concerned we were going to lose some of the traction we built establishing Grand Rapids as a center for arts in the Midwest.”

The first year’s top 10 — which included a life-sized moose sculpture made of nails and a massive table sitting atop a bridge over the Grand River and bearing the title “The Furniture City Sets the Table for the World of Art” — seemed to confirm those fears. Rockman stands by her early criticism, but says ArtPrize is on the right track. “It keeps getting better. We are starting to be viewed through different eyes by the art world. Right off the bat, [ArtPrize] started with small steps, then eventually, much bigger steps. They just keep upping the legitimacy.”

Rockman says she was shoehorned into an elites-versus-masses narrative the news outlets were trying to advance. But she has entered ArtPrize several times since then and tells her students to do the same. She exhibits in Fountain Street Church, which each year curates an exhibition on social justice. Last year Rockman received a $1,000 award from the American Civil Liberties Union for her work. “I think I’d be a hypocrite if I wasn’t participating,” she says. “I want to see ArtPrize succeed and raise the caliber of work that gets shown, and I want the credibility to come to Grand Rapids that is deserved.”

Jihyun Hong - (extra)ordinary

Jihyun Hong – “(extra)ordinary” [credit: Katy Batdorff]

This shift toward a balanced model began, Buist says, not because organizers thought the art was bad, but because of a North Carolina artist named Young Kim, whose 2009 installation “salt & earth” captivated the community but narrowly missed the top 10. After an outpouring of support, ArtPrize announced a surprise $5,000 Curator’s Choice award from the UICA for the artist, which had been contributed by anonymous donors.

“When we began the prize with only the public vote, it created what I think was a really dynamic and productive tension,” Buist says. “We realized the more critical, expert, considered voice was something the public needed to be counterweighted with. One of the things that bothered us from the beginning was that people would assume we were trying to make a claim that just a straight public vote was the best way to find the best art. And that was never the point of it. [The popular art] is not necessarily the most deserving. We want people, in a good way, to fight about it.”

* * *

Some artists refuse to engage with ArtPrize because of its original funding source. The DeVos name adorns buildings all over Grand Rapids, and the family has generated goodwill locally through prolific philanthropy, the funding of world-class institutions, and prolific arts patronage, of which ArtPrize is the most visible recent example. On the coin’s other side is an extremely polarizing political agenda. Rick’s father, Dick, an ex-Amway CEO and one-time GOP gubernatorial candidate, in 2012 spearheaded the effort to enact controversial right-to-work legislation in Michigan. Rick’s mother, Betsy, is the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and a longtime GOP powerbroker. In the decades since the Amway corporation made Richard DeVos a force in national politics, the extended family has spent, by Mother Jones’ estimate, $200 million promoting conservative social and political causes. How ArtPrize ties into this has long been the subject of speculation in local independent media.

Mandy Cano Villalobos - Undocumented Histories

Richard Barnes, Amanda Krugliak, and Jason De León – “State of Exception” [credit: Katy Batdorff]

Artists who oppose these politics sometimes protest within the competition. In GQ, Matthew Power spotlighted Anna Campbell, a professor at Grand Valley State University, who in 2011 entered a mixed-media work titled “The Seeding Trilogy” in a downtown gay bar. As part of the work, bar staff distributed coasters outlining the DeVos family’s longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage. Brooklyn artist William Powhida, in 2014, entered a drawing accompanied by a sarcastic open letter to Grand Rapids, in which he thanked DeVos for getting “desperate artists to mount a huge public exhibit for free.” In 2014, New York artist Steve Lambert made the jury shortlist for an installation called “Capitalism Works For Me.” He stated publicly he would donate any winnings to a local LGBT advocacy group because “the DeVos family has, for generations, been on the wrong side of the fight for civil rights for LGBT people.” ArtPrize welcomed the gesture, and Buist noted that since its founding, ArtPrize’s sponsorship network had widened so a smaller percentage of prize and sponsorship money comes from DeVos foundations and Amway. Lambert didn’t win anything, and wrote on his blog that he was unsatisfied with ArtPrize’s responses to his questions.

A popular recent work was a satirical burlesque performance called ArtPrize! The Musical, written by local artist Corey Ruffin, who stars as Rick DeVos in a skintight, gold superhero outfit, swooping into the city to provide desperately needed cultural enrichment. (Watch it here on YouTube.) The performance is a tongue-in-cheek retelling of ArtPrize’s founding, loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It gleefully mocks everything about ArtPrize: the schlocky art, the so-called good art, the Grand Rapids audience, the media, the impenetrability of the city’s power structure, the Jesus mosaic, snobby New York art critics and too-cool-for-ArtPrize hipsters, the futility of the “conversation,” the quilt, the ramifications of a power-drunk populace throwing bags of money toward whatever sparkly thing catches its eye. Ruffin’s DeVos crows toward the end: “Before I started ArtPrize, Grand Rapids’ understanding of art was at a third-grade level. But now, thanks to me, it’s at a fifth-grade level!” The crowd cheers. It ends with a chorus singing the entry’s public voting code.

[blocktext align=”left”]“ArtPrize killed the underground artistic scene in Grand Rapids. This big thing comes along and suddenly the focus shifts for a good part of the year for any artist who is inexperienced and doesn’t know where to apply themselves.[/blocktext]“ArtPrize killed the underground artistic scene in Grand Rapids,” says Ruffin. “This big thing comes along and suddenly the focus shifts for a good part of the year for any artist who is inexperienced and doesn’t know where to apply themselves. ArtPrize put a big [expletive] ceiling on everything. It’s like, ‘Well, I have my ideas, and now I’ve gotta do it within this framework.’”

ArtPrize! The Musical debuted in 2012 to packed houses at a music venue called (ironically) the Pyramid Scheme. A reprise last year landed Ruffin on the jurors’ short list. “It became like a therapy session or a catharsis,” he says. “When I came out in that gold suit, people were just screaming. Everyone was so ready. They’re like, give it to us. There’s this tension and confusion all over town, but at the end of the show, everyone is so relaxed.”

The musical’s success put Ruffin in a strange position, he says. “There’s no other time of of the year when I could do six shows in a weekend and fill the house. But when I was on that awards stage, never did I feel more like the whole thing was full of [expletive].” Ruffin and his collaborators, a group he leads called Super Happy Funtime Burlesque, this year performed an updated version of the show called “I Almost Won At ArtPrize! The Musical.” It ran during the competition, but was not an ArtPrize entry.

* * *

I returned late one night to the freeway underpass where Ruben Ubiera had been toiling away at “In Our Element.” I found the artist sitting inside an unused bus shelter across the street from his nearly finished piece, smoking an e-cigarette and contemplating his next step. He was nearly done — the background was in place, and he was talking to himself about how to outline the goldfish so they look three-dimensional to passing motorists. It had been an exhausting day: Ubiera had driven to and from Detroit, almost five hours total, to replenish his supply of a kind of paint he couldn’t find in Grand Rapids. Then a wedding party had stumbled across “In Our Element” and posed for pictures in front of it.

Ubiera, 40, was born in the Dominican Republic and lived in Massachusetts and New York before settling in South Florida, where he is now a prominent street art figure. A curatorial stipend partly offset his travel and material costs. He says his idea for what could fill the wall drew him to Grand Rapids, not the possibility of winning anything.

Ruben Ubiera - In Our Element

Ruben Ubiera – “In Our Element” [credit: Katy Batdorff]

“I usually just say, yes, I’m interested, because I’m always interested in doing work. If I didn’t have an idea or a concept I wanted to pursue, I wouldn’t come. When I saw a picture of the wall, I thought it was perfect,” he says. “I observed when I got here, before I started, how people walked through and didn’t even look up. It was just a space to go from here to there. Now, they stop, they think about it, they look at it. Some take pictures and keep on going. A lot of them smile. I know one of my installations is successful when people have that innate response to it.”

Whenever I ask him about the politics of ArtPrize, the tensions that have bothered me for years, how I think it maybe unintentionally affirms the system it sought to disrupt, how conceptually it feels like a set of Russian nesting dolls that never runs out of smaller interior dolls, he shrugs and steers the conversation back to his work. He talks warmly about his interactions with the public. He speaks deeply about the engagement art produces, its essentiality to life, negative space, the equalizing powers of a spray paint can, about how murals can communicate a city’s soul, the fact that the body perceives color even if the eyes do not. About which brewery he plans to visit as soon as he’s done. Everything, basically, besides what it would mean to win at ArtPrize.

“I came here with a blank mind as far as that is concerned,” Ubiera says. “The art is more important.”

He learned two weeks later he had made the jury shortlist for best installation.

Troy Reimink has written about ArtPrize for the Detroit Free Press, the Grand Rapids Press and the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Don’t miss a thing in the world of Belt by signing up for our weekly newsletter: