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All eyes on the ArtPrize







Last weekend in Grand Rapids, the annual populist-driven art event ArtPrize wrapped up its fourth year with the public vote awarding Burbank, California’s Adonna Khare a $200,000 cash prize for her giant carbon pencil mural Elephants. 

But it was when the juried awards were announced that a different narrative began to emerge: Detroit was the real winner.

And while it was predictable that the eyes of most would be fixed on the very straightforward and very large works, like the crowd favorite Elephants, the critics and jurors, like Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College and Jerry Saltz, senior art critic, New York Magazine were clearly looking beyond "big for big's sake."

They turned their gaze to SITE-LAB, an art project based in Grand Rapids curated and co-created by Paul Amenta. The project is committed to facilitating temporary art exhibitions in raw spaces where dynamic collaborations between the art, design, education, business and cultural communities could flourish.

When the final tally was calculated, 9 artists (of the 18 prosals received) in this collection would be from the Detroit area. ArtPrize reports out of the 1517 artists who entered the event, more than 200 Detroit artists exhibited at the 2012 competition.

Amenta, who taught in New York City before settling in Grand Rapids, admits he was not familiar with the Detroit artists but was encouraged by colleagues like University of Michigan’s Amanda Krugliak, Cranbrook’s Heather McGill and the work of antropic historian Richard Barnes to take a closer look at how the Detroit artists would respond to this former museum shell of a space -- the former Grand Rapids Public Museum -- abandoned 18 years ago for a newer venue along the river.

"At this space we were able to provide the artists access not only to a former museum space, but all the artists were granted access to a vast collection of artifacts left in storage, something even rarer," Amenta says. "And since this is a space that has been vacant for some time, the opportunity to respond and present around the theme of ruins is something I felt the Detroit artists clearly understood."

The result was a museum show unlike any other, according to Saltz, who tweeted, "Derelict & shuttered 1938 natural history museum in Grand Rapids. Best location for an art show that I have E V E R seen in this country." 

Not only would SiTE:LAB win the ArtPrize 2012 Outstanding Venue award but three other artists (two from Detroit) would win top prizes: including Design 99’s Displacement, 13208 Klinger -- a found-artifacts installation by Detroit artists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, who salvaged a home near their residence and then re-assembled it in a provocative display in one of the wings of the former museum.

Design 99 took home -- that's in the Detroit neighborhood called NoHam, directly north of Hamtramck -- a $100,000 juried prize for Displacement. 

All the SiTE:LAB artists from Detroit -- including Scott Hocking, Complex Movements with Tiff Massey (ArtPrize Jury Award winner for Time Based work), Amy Weiks, Lindsay Preston Zappas, Lily Cox-Richard, Gary Schwartz, Wes McGee and Catie Newell, contributed thought-provoking works of installation-based art that were clearly rooted in their environment.  

But it was Design 99 that took their oft-repeated theme of responding to the city’s present tension asking us to ponder, "What does all this stuff on display mean in the end?"  

It is not a question easily answered but one to personally internalize and ponder the deeper meaning in our own lives.

Design 99 has long established a community connection in their works in and around Detroit from their Power House project to the Talking Fence.  

For Displacement the artists even recorded a video that loops in the background of this exhibition making the immediate connection to the authenticity of the experience, as they silently went about collecting the artifacts at a house that used to be someone’s home before landing at the SiTE:LAB museum space.  

The world is changing. We as a people are responding to the spaces around us but before we can begin again, the Detroit artist is often asking us to give pause and go deeper before we begin again.

The art of the Detroit artist is capturing the imagination of the outside world while tackling big questions about community and the power contained within. And just like the last century when the world eyed the workings of the people along the assembly line, a new way of work is emerging on a human scale once again capturing the attention of outsiders. 

Design 99’s piece and the collective's work in Detroit are symbolic on many levels. But most of all, they are teaching us how to live in a post-post modern world.

If a Dadaist’s signed urinal, Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp, set the tone for our last century’s art observations, it is just possible that what Detroit is experiencing, like in Design 99’s 2012 Displacement, 13208 Klinger, is the start of a whole new movement in art.

But this time rather than taking the art to the gallery, we could be seeing it played out in the open, in the public realm, on the streets of Detroit, in real communities the artists are creating themselves.

Tommy Allen is lifestyle editor of Model D sister publication Rapid Growth.

Photos by Tommy Allen
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