“I’m not a driven businessman, but a driven artist. I never think about money. Beautiful things make money” – Lord Acton

Artists, time is trickling away to enter what is possibly the most proletarian, interactive and community-centered art exhibit ever, the “ArtPrize.”

Organizers also bill it as “the largest art competition on earth,” which is likely true, covering the majority of the inner city and points beyond. In fact, during the exhibit (September 24 to October 12, 2014) it’s almost impossible to not encounter or avoid speaking about art in the center of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Crowds gather at ArtPrize, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Philanthropist and founder Rick DeVos described ArtPrize as a “celebration of creativity” and a means of encouraging economic and cultural development for Grand Rapids. So far he’s done a bang-up job for both art lovers and businessmen.

Appropriately named for humongous wads of cash bestowed as prizes, the annual ArtPrize has gained Grand Rapids more than a little respect in art culture. But they battled to earn it. The mission of ArtPrize – a type of People’s Art Exhibit – is antithetical to everything the larger art world has often valued. There isn’t a breath of exclusivity or cultural elitism, and academics are not required to explain to the masses.

ArtPrize organizers open their truly diverse and welcoming arms to virtually all comers, professional and amateur. Just pay the $50 entry fee, and there ye be. Yet somehow there are enough professional or highly competent amateurs out of a potential pool of every US citizen to place some excellent work across the city over the last five years. That’s part of their charm, not knowing what you’ll encounter next – push-pin portraits on bulletin boards or a 14-foot sculpture made entirely of tiny welded doves and blackbirds.

"Harper," push-pin portrait by Eric Daigh

Entering ArtPrize is simple, but actually exhibiting there becomes progressively more demanding. Art is shown city-wide in spots such as colleges, art galleries and restaurants – dozens of them. Artists must request and find a suitable spot before they actually land a place in the exhibit. The organizers’ great website guides you through all steps clearly, but it takes time and good negotiation and people skills to land a public spot.

Locals who frequent the Ritz Bar & Grill or Fountain Street Church (and other art venues) have a huge advantage other entrants, but Grand Rapids has proven to be a fair and gracious host. Past winners were spread across the nation – they seem especially fond of Californians.

Unlike most art exhibits, this isn’t a juried show so quality of entrants varies wildly. Professional jurors, however, will determine the $200,000 top prize winner and a few others – and they know a few things about art.

Popular vote garners most awards through a highly democratic, American Idol method. All this was terrifically controversial in the wider art community, which sat back and waited for disaster the first few years but has come around more recently.

Freed from bitter cultural bias against Christian themes, ArtPrize hosts a surprising percentage of devotional art. Last year Wynn Wikman offered “Seven Deadly Sins Machine” in a kinetic, steam-punk approach with toys, metal, gears, pulleys but with a serious subject.

"Seven Deadly Sins," by Wynn Wikman

Contenders can thank local sponsors for their openness to religious art, including the Lord Acton Institute, which has become a loyal supporter of the exhibit. John Dalberg-Acton, or Lord Acton, is best known as the originator of pithy proverbs such as “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Personally I prefer the line which followed that from one Acton’s letters, “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Acton Institute lends its artfully renovated Grand Rapids building for the duration of the show but goes far beyond. The new space includes Prince-Broekhuizen Gallery and a 200-seat auditorium for art-related events.

Lord Acton’s ideals clustered on ethics, art, free enterprise and all types of “human flourishing.” A 19th century Catholic writer, historian and politician, Acton supported private enterprise and the arts. Both work symbiotically in Grand Rapids. So at the Acton Institute at least, Christians need apply.

“Our Great Exchange – Husband” is a contemplative video by the Institute on the creation and motivation behind Daniel Jacob’s sculpture, exhibited in 2013.

They follow Jacob’s creation path from small clay mock-up to large, welded and awkwardly angled statue of Christ. His “crown” – deliberately kitschy and disturbing – makes a spiritual statement that we see Christ “out of date” and irrelevant so much now.

“The Bridegroom Disfigured Under His Casino Crown” is one of several pieces where Jacob’s work strives to deal with how the sacred may be interpreted in modern settings.

Pastor Ben Patterson appears in the video giving a beautifully biblical and historic commentary. Probably not many of us knew that traditional Orthodox weddings include exchanging crowns in memory of martyrdom and as tokens that as Christ died for us, the couple must be willing even to die for one another. Much to ponder in a time when too many couples are bumping each other off glaciers and adding a dash of ethylene glycol to the soup.

Hopeful artists for next fall’s show have only a few weeks to submit an application. You can do this even if you’ve never exhibited before. ArtPrize organizers even make an effort to find exhibitors a host home through their stay. Who else does that for crowds of strangers?

Here are the ArtPrize deadlines, website and other logistics:

  • Artist registration at this site ends June 5, 2014.
  • Seed grant applications for costs end May 18, 2014.
  • Website is ArtPrize.org.
  • Entries must physically exist in one form or another in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the duration of the show. Whether you are also required to be there is hashed out between sponsors of venue sites and artists.

Next September then, I’ll check in and see what ArtPrize, Mr. DeVos and the city of Grand Rapids hath wrought.

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