Is ArtPrize Over?

(Image: Ran Ortner views Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections)

ArtPrize 2020, like so many big events, fell victim to the wave of Covid-19 cancellations. ArtPrize might be known more for big crowds than for art, and gathering crowds in this pandemic is dangerous, so the cancellation wasn’t surprising. The way ArtPrize 2020 was canceled, however, puts at risk the possibility of doing another event in 2021, and might even hasten the end of the organization entirely. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve spent the past eleven years working for ArtPrize, I’ve helped shape it and it has certainly shaped me, so it’s painful to have a front row seat for what might be its undoing. I’m moving on now, but I’ve been writing and editing this blog post throughout the summer in order to communicate where things stand and offer a few final reflections. ArtPrize was a good thing that could have become great, but it would take an awful lot of courage and creativity to rise to the challenge of this moment and grow into an organization ready to take on the decade ahead.

When Covid-19 began shutting down events, schools, offices and pretty much everything else, the ArtPrize staff was at first in a state of shock. Other art institutions in town with budgets much larger than ours began furloughing employees immediately as their ticket sales and facility rental income streams dried up overnight. Compared to them, we felt lucky. Our work could happen remotely quite easily, and since we were planning an event that was still six months away, we felt fortunate to have time to figure things out. We had set aggressive fundraising goals for the year and we were on track to meet them. (A quick aside about fundraising: If you’re under the impression that ArtPrize got all its money from one source, that’s false. We raised several million dollars a year from hundreds of sources: corporations, foundations, individuals, and government grants. Fundraising was tough, but we were good at it.) 

When the shock wore off, we set to work figuring out how ArtPrize could still happen in this new reality, or whether it could happen at all. The board of directors asked us to work on two scenarios that we would present to them in early May. The first scenario (we called it Scenario A) was to do an ArtPrize event in fall 2020 that adapted to social distancing and other health recommendations. Scenario B involved canceling the 2020 event and figuring out how to stretch resources in order to arrive at a fall 2021 ArtPrize. Scenario B was not pretty; it involved temporary furloughs for a portion of the staff, but it would have worked.

Going into the May board meeting, we honestly weren’t sure which of the two scenarios was the best course. We wanted to do a 2020 event of some kind, but safety was hard to gauge and deferring would give us time to rethink some of the fundamental elements of ArtPrize and better adapt to new challenges. After all, art will go on in some way no matter how messy the pandemic gets.The institutions that succeed in supporting artists in new ways will be the ones who are ready to watch where artists go and figure out how to support them even as the landscape shifts.

To our surprise, the board quickly and enthusiastically supported Scenario A, the socially distanced 2020 event. There wasn’t a lot of substantive discussion, and Scenario B didn’t seem to get much consideration at all. Following the board meeting we were ready to present the plan publicly and explain to artists, venues, and the media what a mostly outdoor, socially distanced ArtPrize would look like. But we were told to keep the plans under wraps for the time being. The board wanted us to first share the plan with key sponsors to ensure that they were still onboard. That made sense, so we scheduled those meetings and agreed to follow up with the board in early June.

The early June meeting was different, the mood had become rather grim. Our progress report was positive, however. Scenario A was on track and fundraising was in line with the budget adjustments we’d made to hold a smaller event. There were a few questions, but very little discussion overall. Staff left the call and the board held an executive session. We expected to get the green light within the hour. Instead we waited, and waited, and waited. Eight days later we found out that not only had they decided to cancel the 2020 event, they were also “suspending operations,” which meant putting the entire staff on indefinite furlough. Regarding 2021, the line from the press release written by the board says that they’ll wait to “consider the possibility of future events” at some undisclosed future date.

It’s difficult to know exactly why the tone and the decision of the board flipped so dramatically, or why they declined to discuss our scenario for postponing the 2020 event. I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with a larger mood shift in the city. The second board meeting was only two days after windows were smashed and police cars were burned in downtown Grand Rapids following demonstrations against police brutality. The chaos downtown was not discussed, but the board members on the Zoom call looked tired and the mood was muted and tense.

During that eight-day period I knew they were considering big questions about the future of the organization. I tried everything I could to politely insert myself into those conversations. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve been part of every major change and development within ArtPrize from the beginning. I was part of the team that started ArtPrize in 2009 and I worked my way up to Artistic Director. The role of Executive Director was vacant, which meant that I was acting co-director at the time along with another staff member. I tried so hard to be part of the conversation about how ArtPrize could adapt to the massive challenges facing us, but I was shut out, the decision was made. In a conversation with one board member, after the fact, I asked what conversations had taken place about how to adapt ArtPrize so that it could fulfill its mission in new ways in 2021. His answer absolutely floored me. It floors me still. He said they hadn’t discussed it. They hadn’t discussed it! And now me and the 13 other brilliant people who could have led ArtPrize to meet these new challenges are updating our resumes.

If all it took was for a handful of people to get on a Zoom call and deal a crippling blow to the organization, that probably means that there was a flaw in the leadership structure all along. Past directors really tried, but we were never able to fully transform the quirky art start-up into the broadly supported community organization it needed to be. The board lacked diversity in more ways than one, it never grew to reflect the community that ArtPrize served. I got the sense that the board was not a truly deliberative body. Sure, they voted on things, but for the most part these were not stakeholders in the communities affected by ArtPrize. The people most affected by the decisions about the event in 2020 and 2021 were not being included in the conversations about how the organization could adapt to new challenges. As an example of this disconnect, as soon as the cancellation was announced, community leaders set about planning another fall event called The Bridge, which is happening now. I helped install Tropical Realness, an outdoor installation by Jeffrey Augustine Songco. SiTE LAB is holding a socially distanced event in early October. Doing cultural programming in the fall of 2020 is difficult, but it’s not impossible.

The conversations I was able to have with board members indicated that they were thinking about the future in a very binary way: Either a full, traditional ArtPrize could happen in 2021 or it could not. Of course no one knows yet what large events will look like in the fall of 2021, but that uncertainty is also a form of opportunity. What they should have done instead of suspending operations was declare that an ArtPrize event will definitely happen in 2021, but it will take time, courage, and creativity to figure out what that event will look like in the new world we’re entering. In order to do that, they would need to retain a staff capable of leading boldly into that new reality and finding new and safe ways for art to continue to bring people together.

This vague and inauspicious end to ArtPrize has also given me time to reflect on the last eleven years. Grand Rapids and the world have changed a lot since this all began. It’s possible that ArtPrize was an idea that fit into a certain time, and that time is over. When Trump was elected and Betsy DeVos was appointed education secretary it felt like an existential crisis for the organization. Advisors cut ties, criticisms from artists increased. I reflected at the time (in early 2017) that ArtPrize up to that point had existed entirely within the Obama era, beginning the year of his inauguration in 2009, through to then the most recent event, which took place in the tense weeks preceding the 2016 election. We did two more ArtPrizes, in ‘17 and ‘18, but something was different. The broad populist appeal of ArtPrize felt fragile, the political and cultural fissures of American culture seemed to be growing too deep for our light-hearted, American Idol-style art festival.

Shifting ArtPrize to a biennial schedule and holding Project 1 in 2019 was a response to this cultural shift. We felt the need to stage an exhibition that didn’t just reflect popular sentiment, as ArtPrize does, but one that was about something. ArtPrize is never really about anything in particular, it’s kind of about everything all at once. In contrast, Project 1 was an exhibition that I curated and I gave it the title Crossed Lines, because it was about the visible and invisible lines that make up a city, and how those lines dictate who belongs and who is shut out of spaces that are ostensibly public. These lines are real and they are damaging, we hoped art would help reveal them, and maybe even help people cross them.

The most pernicious lines are the ones that are mostly invisible but are nevertheless fiercely enforced. The most striking example of the crossing of such a line within Project 1 came when DisArt worked with commissioned artists Paul Amenta and Ted Lott to invite London-based drag troupe Drag Syndrome to perform in a Disability Drag Show event using Amenta and Lott’s Critical Infrastructure as a stage. The installation was built in a partial courtyard at the Tanglefoot Building, and the landlord of the space was supermarket heir and Republican congressional candidate Peter Meijer. When Meijer found out about the scheduled performance he forbade it from occurring on his property, agreeing with far-right campaigners who insisted that the (adult, brilliant, self-directed) artists of Drag Syndrome were not capable of electing to be part of their own performance because of their Down’s syndrome. Meijer didn’t bother to communicate directly with DisArt or Drag Syndrome, he instead sent a condescending and ableist letter to ArtPrize revoking permission to use the venue.

A fiercely homophobic and ableist campaign was mounted against the event, and ArtPrize staff, board, and sponsors were inundated with emails and calls. The speed with which it was picked up by the far-right internet rage machine was terrifying. It was circulating on neo-nazi websites within a day of garnering national attention. It must be said that the ArtPrize board acted admirably throughout this ordeal. They knew about the details of performance before it was announced, and they had no problem with it. When it started taking heat, they stuck by ArtPrize staff and offered valuable counsel. What was hard for me at the time was the fact that we had to bite our tongues and take a somewhat muted public response. Partner programming was being censored! We were outraged! But we didn’t want to further roil jittery sponsors, and we didn’t want to spend all of our communication bandwidth on this issue at the expense of telling the wider story of Project 1, which wouldn’t be fair to the other artists and programming.

The show went on. Drag Syndrome performed two sold-out shows at Wealthy Theater and the most exuberant fans were the other Project 1 artists who were in town for the opening. I still feel conflicted about how we handled all that. We arrived at multiple junctures where there simply were not any good choices, and we had to act fast. We had to work out which path was least damaging overall, then grit our teeth and take it. It’s a gut-wrenching feeling, and if you’ve never been in that position, lucky you. Reflecting back on it, it’s clear that the whole ordeal was a more robust articulation of the themes of the exhibition than anything I programmed directly. There are lines that divide space and dictate who does and does not belong. Some of these lines are invisible and can only be seen when they’re crossed and the swift hand of enforcement suddenly appears. The lines drawn by ableism, homophobia and transphobia became suddenly visible in that moment, and I’ll never unsee them again.

So what does Project 1 have to do with the current situation that ArtPrize finds itself in? I don’t think the connection is direct, but I do think the Drag Syndrome affair contributed to the fatigue and risk-aversion that I sense from the board. To operate a relevant public art institution now means running headlong into those sticky situations, not shying away from them. There is no longer any way to do a non-political, “fun” art show that draws tourist dollars and makes a run at establishing Grand Rapids as a culturally relevant place. Project 1 was about confronting the demons that linger behind Midwestern nice—segregation, red-lining, managerial racism—and it was only the beginning of what an ArtPrize organization with a curatorial voice could accomplish. If Grand Rapids is going to be a “cool city” known for the arts, that means we need to fearlessly engage with art’s capacity to reveal things about ourselves, our institutions and our city. Sometimes art shows us things about ourselves that we don’t like, and a city staking its reputation on art needs to be ready to wrestle with that.

Regarding the possibility of future ArtPrize events, it was clear that the board was worried about raising money with the prospect of future event cancellations and postponements. In a way this kind of thing always comes down to money, but it’s not that simple. When it comes to fundraising for nonprofits, money is closely linked to courage. If we raised money for a 2021 event and the situation with the pandemic (or other factors) evolved in such a way that we weren’t able to deliver on those sponsor commitments—but we’d already spent money on payroll and rent—then what? That’s a tough spot, for sure, but the question of whether the board is willing to risk ending up in that situation comes down to courage and creativity. If we can’t do exactly what we hope in 2021, do we have the courage and creativity to find ways to fulfill both sponsor commitments and our mission in a way that’s safe, effective and relevant? If the world turns upside down, do we have the guts to go back to sponsors and tell them how cool it is that we get to play on the ceiling? The staff of ArtPrize absolutely had the necessary courage and creativity to meet those challenges. I have a lot of appreciation and respect for the board and all they’ve done for ArtPrize over the years, but in this case I think caution led them to make the wrong call.

Is ArtPrize over? I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure about other staffers, but I’m not waiting around to find out, I’m moving on. Maybe the board will give it another try in the future, but unfortunately they’ve jettisoned a lot of institutional knowledge. ArtPrize has always been nimble and mutable in ways that other arts orgs can’t be, which is why it’s so hard to watch it freeze in the face of a new challenge. I’ve always thought of ArtPrize as a perennially unfinished project. The ArtPrize in my mind was always a higher ideal than the real thing, I saw it as the next version of what it could become. ArtPrize was designed to be responsive and adaptable, and it always had something new in the world to respond to. It was scrappy, energetic and relentless, which is what I loved about it, and why it was so painful to be shut out of the conversation about how it could rise to meet the present moment. Making relevant public-facing art has never been more challenging, and it’s never been more important.

I try to remind myself that the institution is never the thing. It’s a container for the thing and we shouldn’t be too precious about it. Containers wear out, we can invent new ones. Art will go on, people and institutions and energy will always find ways to follow and support what artists do. The institutions that survive will be the ones that have the creativity to adapt to a changing world and the courage to see what art shows us.

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