So You Think You Can Paint? Welcome to ArtPrize

Every September, a quiet, churchy city in the American heartland undergoes a Technicolor transformation. Art pops up everywhere—paintings, giant insect statues, experimental happenings. Sidewalks and parks turn into open-air museums; taverns become galleries. A huge pot of money is dangled before the artists, $250,000(!) for the grand prize. And here’s the best part: You know who gets to pick the winner? You do. Matthew Power reports:

By September 29, 370,309 votes had been cast, and DeVos held a press conference to announce the ten finalists. The public would have six days to choose the $250,000 winner. Among the chosen: Rusty, the giant found-object puppy; the even more giant welded-steel praying mantis; the Tim McGraw–surfer Jesus mosaic; Gerald Ford; a crying octopus carved out of driftwood; a collection of chain-saw-carved bears; and a living statue of the sort you see in the piazzas of Europe, a dude dressed like a construction worker, covered in copper body paint and standing atop a scaffold.

The general critical consensus was that Rick DeVos’s grand experiment in letting public opinion determine the outcome had yielded up a torrent of kitsch—the “crazy crap” he’d asked for. Twitter was not kind. “Looks like the DeVos family is going to be seriously overpaying for some bad art. #artprize.” “Before announcing the #ArtPrize Top 10, Rick DeVos said it is not about the Top 10. I now understand why he said that.”

I found Paul Amenta in the dark and empty Site:Lab a few days later. Not a single Site:Lab piece had made the cut. “Don’t even get me started,” he said, shaking his head. “I had this moment where I had to switch gears, ‘cause if I didn’t I would go crazy.” He had dedicated months of his life to preparing the space and persuading artists to come exhibit. I asked him if he’d try again, and he laughed bitterly. “I couldn’t get the artists to commit to a thing like this, given what happened with the voting.”

This was exactly what he meant when he talked about the public fucking it up. He told me when DeVos had made the top ten announcement, the skies over Grand Rapids had blackened, and a windstorm with thunder and lightning had swept through the town. “It was freaky. Like God was registering disapproval or something.”

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