Now seven years old, international arts competition ArtPrize continues to pull the art world off-axis, shifting attention away from bi-coastal cultural centers like New York and Los Angeles to instead shine the spotlight on Grand Rapids, Mich., a mostly conservative, modestly-sized city in the heart of the Midwest. Attended by over 23,000 visitors a day, the crux of ArtPrize lies in its public vote, a selection system that allows anyone and everyone to vote for their favorite work on display amidst the festival’s three-mile sprawl, as well as its generous entry policy, which allows any artist and any venue to compete or to host their own show. Two weeks and two rounds of voting later, after these venues and artists are funneled down into a lucky few, the winner of the popular vote receives a $200,000 cash prize, though the amount and the formatting have changed since the first ArtPrize.

In the first year, surfer-artist Ran Ortner’s oil painting of an ocean wave won him $250,000. By the fifth ArtPrize, the public’s taste proved static as Ann Loveless’ landscape quilt, “Sleeping Bear Dune Lakeshore,” nabbed top honors. But the cash prize had changed. The inclusion of a juried prize in the third ArtPrize allocated a chunk of the competition’s annual $500,000+ package to a committee of critics, positioning the people's choice alongside a more conventional, "high art" perspective. This year’s breakdown gives $200,000 to the juror’s choice, $200,000 to the public’s choice, and $12,500 for each of their winner’s in the categories of two-dimensional, three-dimensional, time-based, and installation art, as well as the best venue. 162 public venues and 1,550 artists comprise this year's competition.

The hefty prize has placed a target on ArtPrize’s back from its beginnings. And that the competition is so "radically open" has been seen as a double-edged sword, particularly by gatekeepers from those aforementioned cultural havens. In an oft-cited quote, 2012 ArtPrize juror and renowned critic Jerry Saltz called ArtPrize "terrifying and thrilling." The New York Times compared the competition's voting system to American IdolIn 2012, journalist Matthew Power wrote that ArtPrize's mission to expand the boundaries of good taste "had failed." The common criticism against the festival has framed it as a purveyor of kitsch, as a purportedly clueless public rewards animal paintings, cutesy lakeside scenes, and a sexy Jesus with gobsmacking sums of money. It seems to suggest that the people in charge (both the voters and the festival organizers) don’t know what they’re doing, that they’re completely unaware of the supposed havoc they’re wreaking. But this type of criticism is exactly what ArtPrize invited from the start; borne of a failed movie website start-up, ArtPrize was designed to "reboot the conversation between artists and the public"—a lofty (and turbulent) goal if there ever was one. And, more important, harping on this issue privileges the narrative around the festival,  causing us to forget about why we came to ArtPrize in the first place: the art.

Kunihiro Akinaga's "Mimesis" / Photo by Brooke Maxwell

And there is, in fact, a lot of art to enjoy here. At Frederik Meijer Gardens, a sort of off-site site away from the festival’s downtown nucleus, I was impressed not only by their permanent collection—which featured works from Ai Weiwei, Jenny Holzer, Richard Serra, Zhang Huan, and countless others—but by their own ArtPrize entry as well: "Tradition and Innovation," a fantastic collection of contemporary Japanese ceramics. Featuring both stoneware and porcelain works, the exhibition explores Japan’s rich visual history, both past and present, blending otherworldly imagination with their storied tradition of craftsmanship. The estate is a gem, on-par with renowned sculpture gardens like New York’s own Storm King.

Kazuki Takemura's "Growing1401" / Photo by Brooke Maxwell

The following day, my group stayed in the city, where most of the work observing ArtPrize takes place. “Democratization” is a word that’s thrown around like loose change in the age of the Internet, but it’s rare to see what that idea means in-person, on a scale this large. Everyone is a critic and tastemaker here, as Grand Rapidians and curious outsiders pound pavement from venue to venue—galleries, bars, churches—silently and not-so-silently observing the extravaganza. While touring the Grand Rapids Art Museum's "Nature/Nuture" exhibition with chief curator Ron Platt, a small pack of museum-goers couldn’t help but latch on with us, unafraid to ask questions and offer their take. 

These viewers were drawn to Krista Schoening’s large-scale, oil on canvas, flower painting “Karma Dahlia II,” an unsurprising fixation given the audience’s penchant for works of technical achievement. Indeed, for many attendees, the art seems to feel most like “art” when they're being visually awed. Last Sunday's reveal of the public shortlist confirmed this assumption to be true.

Krista Schoening's "Karma Dahlia II" / Image via ArtPrize

With a few exceptions, concept seemed to play little part in the public’s decision-making. Or perhaps the technique is the concept. This isn’t bad, per se. This is the widening of the conversation, right? But as much as it’s ArtPrize’s right to kick down the doors of the critical establishment, it’s also an observer’s right to disagree with the public’s taste. For instance, Anni Crouter’s tiger tryptych “Triple Play,” which placed in the Top 20 of Sunday's first round of public voting, is about as striking to me as a television commercial for Zoobooks (but at least I now know that not all of my ‘90s nostalgia induces warm fuzzies). Nevertheless, her 2013 entry “Polar Expressed” (it’s the same thing, but with polar bears!) took second-place honors in the public vote, winning $75,000 (the smaller category awards weren’t introduced until 2014). Giving work like this $75,000 is troubling. These are flat, caged representations of wild animals. Juror and Hyperallergic senior editor Jillian Steinhauer was equally dismissive of Crouter's latest effort: "They're like cuddly cats. If tigers can be belittled, this is belittling them." 

Anni Crouter's "Triple Play" / Photo via ArtPrize

The divide between the jurors and the public can create an obvious discrepancy between the intended audience of certain works. To her credit, Crouter knows who she is painting for. On the flip side, you have critical darling SiTE:LAB, a "nomadic arts non-profit" that specializes in site-specific projects and has won the Most Outstanding Venue prize nearly every year since the category was created. SiTE:LAB's high-concept Rumsey Street Project will not be for everyone. However, its scale should be intriguing to all. This year, curator and SiTE:LAB co-founder Paul Amenta's latest crew transformed an entire Grand Rapids neighborhood consisting of old houses, rundown churches, and even an auto repair shop, using the buildings' interiors and exteriors to varying degrees.

Inside the auto repair shop, you can find Richard Barnes, Amanda Krugliak, and Jason De León's "State of Exception," a poignant installation of backpacks collected at the Mexico-United States border in Arizona. Dirtied and well-worn, these artifacts are a strangely evocative symbol of immigration, transition, and what comes and goes with human beings as they make their journey across the border. Across the street, there's Nick Kline's "Stripes for St. Joseph's," a response to his Catholic upbringing, and the recent tragedy at the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. Kline re-worked the abandoned St. Joseph the Worker church both inside and out, but I was immediately taken by his decision to sand down the white paint from certain boards of the church's exterior. The resulting stripes (a recurring theme in Kline's work and, coincidentally, a symbol associated with St. Joseph) give the building an arresting aura without trying to re-consecrate it. 

Richard Barnes, Amanda Krugliak, and Jason De León's "State of Exception" / Photo by Brooke Maxwell

Of course, there also exist works and venues of such size and ambition that both the public and the jurors can't help but be pleased. Last year, it was Anila Quayyum Agha's "Intersections," an intricate, breath-taking, eminently 'gram-able cube constructed from laser-cut wood that split the jurors' vote, and won the public vote outright. It was a landmark moment for ArtPrize, an occasion when the people and the establishment finally came to an agreement. This year, Emily Kennerk's "Whisper" is the sole overlapping candidate between the public and juried shortlists. Her installation literally finds strength in audience participation. You have a dinner table set with glasses and dishware, and a microphone rigged to trigger vibrations on the table. By whispering (speaking any louder renders your voice powerless) into a microphone, the viewer "activates the sculpture," potentially sending out a tremor strong enough to bring this scene to a crashing halt. "Whisper" explores the calm before the storm, the fragile balance of domestic bliss. It may not duplicate Agha's two-fer, but it would be a worthy winner. 

But there is stiff competition for Kennerk. This year, the jurors' shortlist featured a noteworthy selection of works and venues which included pulse-pounding documentary (Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari’s T-Rex), ambitious spaces (SiTE:LAB, and the local art and design college, Kendall), and resonant social commentary (Monroe Aki O’Bryant’s “A Fearless Brother Project Presents: Realistic Neglects—A Graphic Series by: Akibang” and Dylan Miner’s “Anishinaabensag Biimskowebshkigewag (Native Kids Ride Bikes)”). The latter projects, both on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, spoke to issues at the heart of the Michigan community. O’Bryant’s photography featured “dramatic re-enactments of violent crimes perpetrated against black Grand Rapidians,” as pressing a topic as any in America right now, particularly in a majority white city like Grand Rapids. Native-American artist Dylan Miner partnered with local Native youths for “Native Kids Ride Bikes,” transforming regular bikes into historical objects which connected a new generation to the visual traditions of their respective tribes.

Dylan Miner’s “Anishinaabensag Biimskowebshkigewag (Native Kids Ride Bikes)” / Photo courtesy ArtPrize

These works and more were all given their time in the spotlight during ArtPrize’s hour-long Jurors’ Shortlist Event, a televised program (on network TV, no less) that gave critics and curators space to simply talk about art. In 2015, it was a feat to see this much airtime devoted to a roundtable about the arts, and a well-executed one at that. Though, the show was not without its flaws. When O’Bryant’s project came up for discussion, the network made the decision to only briefly show the photography on-air due to concerns about its graphic nature. It was a serious misstep when you consider the setting of O’Bryant’s work. There was bitter irony to the fact that the festival was simultaneously shedding light on issues of violence within the Grand Rapids community while also sweeping them back under the rug.

Monroe Aki O’Bryant’s “A Fearless Brother Project Presents: Realistic Neglects—A Graphic Series by: Akibang” / Photo courtesy ArtPrize

Regardless, I enjoyed hearing the jurors share their perspective on the festival, and the time they were given to explain their decision-making process created an accessible and unhurried dialogue. It's a testament to ArtPrize's strength in the community that there's a demand for a program of this nature. And even if the jurors' taste didn’t have a substantial trickle-down effect on the public vote, I can at least be confident that the conversation which ArtPrize is so focused on generating is in fact being heard, if not heeded. 

ArtPrize has been far from unblemished in its seven years of existence. Certain works will always invite harsh criticism. The money will be the source of much hand-wringing. The judging format has been uneven and tentative from year-to-year. But there's no doubt that the competition has grown stronger; and while adjustments have been necessary since ArtPrize's beginning, I think it's best to view this tinkering like an update, a chance to work out the bugs (particularly in light of its tech start-up background). In its seventh year, ArtPrize can take pride in knowing that this year's version is its best.