Welcome to Grand Rapids, the IRL Reddit of Art

Originally posted in Fast Company on October 20, 1988

The exclusive parties. The snarky critics. The galleries with locked glass doors that make it a hostile place for everyone but the very rich or the very talented (and even for them, it’s not always easy). The world of fine art is anything but open.

Yet in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a disruptive art competition called ArtPrize is turning the system upside down by making the art world more like the Internet. Downtown Grand Rapids doesn’t look anything like other capitals of the art world. Apart from the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, it is notably devoid of galleries. But for 19 days each September and October, the city becomes an open-air art extravaganza. I spent three days in Grand Rapids during this year’s ArtPrize, and it was pretty much impossible to walk a city block without seeing a painting, sculpture, or installation. All of this happens without with the curators, collectors, PR people, and galleries that turn the wheels and pull the levers (and strings) of the traditional art world. Instead, it relies on the anarchic equilibrium that defines the open communities of the Internet. Welcome to the Reddit of the art world.

The competition was founded in 2009 by the billionaire and philanthropist Rick DeVos, a Grand Rapids local, as an attempt to create a new kind of arts community. Here, art is curated by the businesses and venues of downtown Grand Rapids, and the fortunes of the artists are decided by the public. Success is determined by a single metric: the number of votes, which are cast electronically by thousands of regular people. There isn’t a snarky critic in sight.

One of the inspirations for ArtPrize was sites like Digg and Reddit. The idea being that content should rise to the top if enough people like it. ArtPrize’s Director of Exhibitions Kevin Buist told me that they wanted to create an alternative to having “a couple of people sitting in a room, deciding what’s going to happen everywhere, saying ‘this is what’s going to be good. This is who’s going to win.’”

But unlike an online forum, the stakes here are high: The artwork with the most votes overall takes home the Grand Prize—$200,000. In a somewhat controversial move, ArtPrize introduced, in 2012, a Jury prize, but the public vote is still considered more significant by almost all attendees.

In many ways, ArtPrize is like a mini, functional Internet brought to life. At its core, it’s a technology organization. “There’s this idea in the tech world of just building a platform, and then enabling people to take and use that platform,” Buist tells me. The organic interplay of artists, venues, and the public takes care of the rest. “It’s totally decentralized.” He offered as an example eBay, which isn’t directly making sales, just enabling them.

The numbers at ArtPrize are large enough for this experiment in networked openness to work. This year, 109,000 people downloaded the ArtPrize app for iPhone and Android. About 40,000 people voted on 1,536 artworks. The organizers expect total visitor numbers this year to approach 500,000, more than what New York ‘s Whitney Museum takes in a whole year. When I walked past the Grand Rapids Art Museum on a Friday around lunchtime, there was a queue, several hundred people long, stretching out along the front of the building. I saw more people examining and discussing a sculpture—The Pond, by a group of artists calling themselves the Kroeze Krew—in my hotel lobby than I’ve seen gazing upon grand master pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From March, when registration opens, until the last day of the festival, ArtPrize presides over several stages of delicate online chaos. In the first stage, artists and venues rush to match up with each other through a system called Connections. Artists, who this year hailed from 51 countries and 42 states (about 77% come from Michigan), create profiles with pictures, information, bios, and links to websites; the venues of Grand Rapids do the same. The two parties browse each other, requesting a connection when they think they’ve found a match. If this sounds a little like online dating for art, that’s because it is. “Think of it as a marketplace,” Buist says.

The second stage is the public vote, which begins once all the artworks have been installed and the festival begins. This is when the fortunes are made. Votes are cast through the mobile app, online, or by text message. During the festival, the constant refrain on the streets is: “Did you vote?” In a cab two days before the end of voting, I asked a cab driver if she had cast her votes, the way I might ask a driver somewhere else about the weather. “Of course,” she said.

The system is simple—the artworks with the most votes take home the money. As well as the Grand Prize, artworks contend for four different $20,000 category prizes. “Think of it as American Idol for art,” explains ArtPrize Director of Technology Jonathan Hunsberger. (And that fact that there are so many analogies for what this thing is, only underscores how both familiar and unique the festival is.) Hunsberger told me that ArtPrize uses geo-fencing so that you cannot register until you are inside the three-square-mile downtown area, ensuring that only people who see the art get to vote. To prevent virtual ballot stuffing, you are only given 20 votes, and you can’t vote for any artwork more than once.

Though ArtPrize is completely democratic, it can, just like most democracies, still be unfair. Each year, a majority of the public vote finalists are located in the biggest and most frequented institutions, such as the Grand Rapids Museum of Art and the Meijer Sculpture Park. “The public vote follows foot traffic to a certain extent,” explains Buist. This makes it difficult for smaller venues to compete. “We can only allow a certain number of people into the building safely,” A.J. Paschka, the curator of a strong show at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, tells me as we sit under the unnerving gaze of two schoolgirl figures in a painting called City As Muse. “I don’t think we have much of a chance.”

Some of the most in-demand venues bypass the Connections system and instead reach out to artists that its curators want in their show. This year’s Best Venue prizewinner, Site:Lab, an abandoned building recommissioned as a temporary gallery, was populated by works from outside the ArtPrize pool. It feels a little bit like cheating, but in an open system there will always be those who figure out a way to improve their odds.

And anyway, ArtPrize is not, according to DeVos, an attempt at fairness. The point is community engagement. “There’s always an opportunity to open side doors and create opportunities for people outside of the usual cast of characters,” he wrote in an email. One way that this has proven to be the case is in the numerous awards and scholarships that have been set up by participating institutions, completely of their own accord. Though an artwork in a small coffee shop may not have a chance at the big time, through the open system it can potentially win any number of prizes, including that universal art world prize: a sale. All of this just happens without ArtPrize’s intervention. “I think it’s the stuff that unexpectedly comes in over the transom that is the most fun,” DeVos told me.

So what is the art world’s equivalent of a popular cat video? While the jurors tend to pick abstract or conceptual works, the public gravitates toward realistic works that show off the artist’s skill, a much more traditional valuation system. “Sometimes the system based on mass appeal leads to the lowest common denominator,” says Paschka. “When you get a lot of people who are encountering art for the first time, certain things like the amount of time that it took to make the artwork, or the size of the artwork, are a big factor,” explained Christian Gaines, ArtPrize’s executive director. So ironically, this radically progressive project has become an inadvertent sponsor of old-school art.

While walking around downtown, I saw a number of works with religious and spiritual themes. These pieces, which might not see the light of day in a typical avant-garde art scene, are often among the most popular at ArtPrize. The 2011 Grand Prize winner, Crucifixion, is a renaissance-conjuring depiction of Jesus on the cross.

But this year, for the first time, a work was a finalist in both the Public Vote and Jury categories. The piece, Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections, a latticework light box that projected itself onto the four walls of a large room in the Art Museum, combined high concept and high craft. In the end, it won both the Public vote Grand Prize and half the Jury Grand Prize (it tied with Sonya Clark’s Hair Craft Project). I found Agha in a backstage room after the awards ceremony looking rather pale. She had just won $300,000. I asked her what it meant that, despite their differences, the public and the jury made the same decision. “We all need that singing in our souls, and I think the public has an ability to discern when something makes them feel that way,” she said.

Good art, it seems, can speak for itself even when you cut out the intermediaries of the art world. The implications are significant. What is the point of a curator or a critic if the public, through voting, can decide instead? I overheard dozens of people eloquently and vociferously debating the merits, or not, of certain pieces. They didn’t seem to be waiting for anybody to tell them what to think and what to like. Still, curators need not worry that ArtPrize is about to replace their jobs with the force of crowdsourced curation. ArtPrize isn’t trying to start a revolution.

I asked DeVos if he felt that he’d figured out a better way to do art. “It’s not necessarily better, just different,” he said. “Existing structures serve their constituents well.” Instead, he said, the project is about allowing a community with no access or influence in the art world to participate and be influential.

ArtPrize has thrown open the locked doors, but could it fundamentally change the art world? To find out, I asked Susan Sollins, the soft-spoken and brilliant director of Art21, who was this year’s Grand Prize juror, if she thought ArtPrize could work in a place with an already-established art scene, like New York City (where she lives). “Perhaps we are too jaded,” she said.

Then she thought for a while. “But on the other hand, New York is already an ArtPrize every day.”