Big news in the art quilt world recently is that an art quilt just won a HUGE prize in a competition in which it was pitted against art in all mediums. The winner is Anne Loveless, of Frankfort MI; the competition is ArtPrize, held in Grand Rapids MI; and the prize is an astounding $200,000, said to be the world’s largest art award.
The competition has been going on for five years and is in two parts: one where the winners are chosen by public vote, and one where a professional art jury selects the winners. Apparently the public section is something like the Oklahoma land rush, where the Sooners lined up in their covered wagons and sped into the sunset to grab the best plots for homesteading. Any artist in the world can enter the competition, as long as he or she finds a place within three miles of downtown Grand Rapids to display the work, and jockeying for good space begins many, many months before the competition opens. This year there were more than 1500 entries.
Once the work is installed, anybody who wants to visit can check out the art and cast a vote during the 19 days of the event. After a week they announce the Top 100, Top 50 and Top 25; towards the end the Top 10 are named and there’s another round of voting.
The winning quilt had to overcome a huge setback near the end of the competition when the federal government shutdown closed the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. The quilt and three others in the top ten had been displayed at the museum, a prime location for the competition. For the last several days of the event, Loveless moved her quilt to a tent outside the building, and slept there to guard it, and to lobby visitors for their votes.
The fact that a quilt won the big prize was received by the art quilt community as wonderful news, but what does it mean to the larger world of high art? Perhaps not much.
The art critic for the Detroit Free Press, for instance, commented that “there’s quality art to be found at ArtPrize, but you have to wade through a lot of dull, second-rate and amateur work, too.” He mentioned twelve works that he particularly liked, but they were all in the professional category, not in the public vote running. Another art professional, who runs a college gallery, told a local TV station that many of the top vote-getters had “entertainment value, but not art value.”
One of the artists on the professional jurors’ short list wrote in a blog, “ArtPrize is populist. The classic definition meaning that populism is a revolt against elitism. In practical terms, this is exactly what ArtPrize is and this is good, but unfortunately it engenders limitations. By looking at this year’s popular winning entries and those from previous years three elements are consistent; the art work is large in scale, it is extremely well crafted, and it is easily accessible, no guesswork is needed to immediately understand what is being looked upon. In other words it is easy on the eye and easy to immediately understand. What goes through the mind of most non-expert viewers, I would suspect, is a wow factor, an immediate acknowledgement how difficult and time consuming it was to produce the work, coupled with a keen appreciation of the talent that went into its creation. Thus a vote is given, not only because the viewer may “like” the piece, but also as a reward for the diligence and craft that went into creating it.”
That description fits the winning quilt perfectly. In fact, Loveless said that in her two previous ArtPrize participations, “I realized you had to go big to be seen in ArtPrize.”
Loveless, of course, saw larger implications in her big win. She told the local newspaper art critic, “Textiles aren’t considered fine arts. They think of the quilt on the bed. But definitely this is art. I think next year, we’ll have a lot of textile entries. I think I’m paving the way for quilters in general.”
I’m sure she’s right that there will be lots more quilts entered in ArtPrize next year. But I think she and all the quilters who exulted over the news are whistling past the graveyard when they think winning the big one will raise the profile of quilts in the high art world. The professional jurors didn’t give it the time of day, nor did they choose anything that was among the people’s favorites.
In fact, one might cynically argue that when a quilt won the public vote, it ensured that the pros won’t look at another quilt for many years. Just as the artist commented above that populism is a revolt against elitism, elitism is a revolt against populism.
The jurors went instead for more cerebral installation art. The big winner with the jury ($100,000) was Carlos Bunga, a Spaniard, who made “a site-specific, architectural intervention…that uses cardboard, tape and paint to re-imagine a gallery in the former Grand Rapids Public Museum.” No danger of that one winning the public vote, just as there’s no danger of a quilt winning the jury.