Engaging Art Prize: An Introduction [Part One]

Editor’s Note: Over the next three Wednesdays, Transpositions will feature a 3-part series on Art Prize by guest contributor, Chris Brewer. Starting with an introduction to the competition (published 11 April), Brewer suggests a storied theology of the arts as a way by which to engage Art Prize (published 18 April). The series concludes with two vignettes from Art Prize 2011 (published 25 April).

Art Prize is a radically open, American Idol-like art competition that is part arts festival, part social experiment, and decided solely by a public vote. For two weeks or so, any property within the Art Prize boundary, a three-square-mile area of downtown Grand Rapids, MI, can become a venue and select one or more artists for exhibition. What’s more, Art Prize gives away the world’s largest art prize: $200,000 for first place. The event was unveiled by Rick DeVos – grandson of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, #176 on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires – in 2009.

All this being said, the competition has caused quite a stir, popping up everywhere from The New York TimesUSA Today, and The Wall Street Journal to the Acton Institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality in a debate between Nathan Jacobs and Calvin Seerveld (see Seerveld’s Surresponse). More recently, Grand Rapids was named one of eight North American cities experiencing an artistic boom, due in large part to Art Prize. It has, of course, raised the usual questions (e.g., What is art?), as well as conversations having to do with everything from the economic benefits to urban revitalization.[1]

See The New York Times slideshow from Art Prize 2009 here.

New to this year’s competition is a $100,000 Juried Grand Prize, a call for curators to select artwork for city park venues and a $20,000 Outstanding Venue Award. The Outstanding Venue Award joins four other $20,000 juried awards: 2-D, 3-D, Time-based and Best Use of Urban Space. These awards evince a gradual shift away from the general public and towards the guild, which is understandable given the general public’s proclivity towards that which is nothing but large, time intensive or just plain kitsch, to the neglect of works that are good, beautiful and true.[2]

And this is where the questions begin to pile up: How ought the individual engage Art Prize? Or perhaps a more appropriate first question: How should Art Prize be understood (i.e., as an arts competition with the focus on the art and the artists, as a conversation with the focus on the art and the community, as a sort of meta performance art with the focus on the event itself as opposed to its constituent parts, etc.)?

On a related note, to what extent should the guild shape the outcome of Art Prize? What are the effects, positive or negative, of reinforcing artistic behavior with such a large cash prize or any cash prize for that matter? And what criteria should be used, whether by public or guild, to judge these artworks? Is Art Prize responsible for providing, in addition to the opportunity for engagement, education along these lines (i.e., criteria for voting) and if so, what might that look like?

Shifting gears a bit, how might the Church engage Art Prize? And how should we respond to a piece like Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion,” the Art Prize 2011 1st place winner?

How should we respond to these and other questions?  When in doubt, start with creation, and that’s exactly where we’re headed in Part 2: A Storied Theology of the Arts.

[1] With regard to the economic benefits, see “Art Prize 2010 generated $7 million economic impact, Grand Valley State University estimates.” For additional background and a thoughtful discussion of public art see Lambert Zuidervaart, Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and Democratic Culture (New York: Cambridge, 2011), esp.190-203. Zuidervaart is the former President of the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, MI, the founding institutional sponsor of the Art Prize competition (202).

[2] See “Critical Discourse – Art Prize 2011.”


  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

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  1. says: Jeremy Bergwerff

    You raise a lot of questions here and I’m interested to see where you take the answers. Did the original intent of Art Prize have any spiritual focus or is this a situation where the beliver can engage a cultural meme and highlight or bend the discourse toward the spiritual?

    1. says: Chris Brewer

      Jeremy, I can’t speak to Rick’s intent, though his background in the Christian Reformed Church and education at Calvin College would lead me to believe that Art Prize is, in fact, an idea for the common good in the spirit of Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians. And there’s certainly potential here (i.e., for engagement, etc.).

      This particular conversation is aimed at whether or not, and to what extent, the common good might be served by Art Prize. I don’t intend to answer those questions, but instead to surface and frame (in the next post) them for our discussion. Thanks for joining the conversation.

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