Like the Calder, ArtPrize could symbolize Grand Rapids’ artistic spirit

By Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Director of Exhibitions and Curator of Sculpture
Guest Column in the Grand Rapids Press

ArtPrize, an international initiative announced Thursday by Rick DeVos, has captured the attention of the local art world and beyond. This is a guest column by Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Professor of Art History at Aquinas College, and Director of Exhibitions and Curator of Sculpture at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

ArtPrize. What it is? Do we need it? What do you mean no one has ever done this before? In recent days, I have heard these questions with frequency and intensity. The actual event does not occur until autumn, so specific answers are in the future. However, take solace, I know we have asked these questions in the past.

Believe it or not, 40 years ago when asked “What is it?” the answer was a stabile by one of the world’s foremost artists, Alexander Calder. The national art community took note. In the early 1970s, when colossal abstract sculptures were showing up across downtown, the exhibition “Sculpture Off the Pedestal” forced many to ask “Why do we need it?” The answer proved the need for and power of public art, and the national cultural community was hooked. More recently, no one ever imagined combining botanical gardens with masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary sculpture. The international community tuned in.

Today it is impossible to imagine Grand Rapids without Calder’s La Grande Vitesse. Or the projects of the Women’s Committee. Or Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. Through endeavors such as these, history, patrimony and identity come together; they help us define ourselves and symbolize this community to the rest of the world. There is every reason to hope that someday ArtPrize will join this list.

Still struggling? Then know Art Prize is about Contemporary art. This is rarely the domain of pretty pictures or beautiful objects. This is a world about concepts and possibilities, issues and ideas, creativity and technology, discourse and dialogue. But aren’t these telltale characteristics of a vibrant, if not great, society as well? Know that this is more than an “art scene” but a truly global phenomenon and, increasingly, a community expectation for young professionals looking for a place to call home and tourists in search of a meaningful experience. In tough economic times, it is not about “jobs” in the traditional sense, but furthering a community that attracts and nourishes the creative, the ingenious, the future.

Yes, Art Prize is about the visual arts. It places every school administrator on notice that the visual arts, indeed all the arts, are imperative – keep the budget knife in the drawer. It asks every artist, designer, architect, art faculty member, art student, and arts professional to engage with the community at large – get out of your studio and talk to your neighbors. The populist notion that every vote counts towards the awarded prizes is highly unusual, but it is an opportunity to discuss, to learn and to grow – together.

Let’s celebrate Rick DeVos for this initiative, which is bold and mature in a time of need, innovative and brave in the absence of precedence. These attributes he shares with Nancy Mulnix Tweddale instrumental in the arrival of the Calder, the members of the Women’s Committee, and Fred Meijer. One hopes DeVos follows their examples of informed conversation with art world professionals on their respective journeys. Likewise, one trusts that area donors and businesses will realize sponsorship dollars for ArtPrize in addition to those currently needed by area arts organizations. This said, the monetary awards of ArtPrize may go to a few artists from around the globe, but the true prize goes to Grand Rapids and its future.

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