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The Big Money's in Grand Rapids

Chicago muralist Tracy Van Duinen won $100,000 in last year's ArtPrizeā€”and that was for second place.

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In 1989 Tracy Van Duinen graduated from the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a BFA in advertising design and went right to work in his chosen field. By 1996 he was a senior art director at an international advertising firm in Rolling Meadows, managing accounts for clients like Sega Genesis and Hewlett Packard. He was also miserable. "Expectations were high but creative rewards were few," he says. Decisions were driven by business minutiae or the personal whims of executives (not to mention their spouses). "There wasn't any real meaning in the work," and the hours were so long there wasn't any time for his own projects.

He wanted out. "I thought, 'I love art and I love kids,'" Van Duinen says. "I started researching art-ed programs, and on the day I left my corporate job, I went down and registered at UIC."

Two years later he accepted a full-time job with the Chicago Public Schools, at Austin Community Academy High School, where teachers were desperately needed. In 2001 he won a Golden Apple Award for his work there and used the sabbatical break that came with it to learn bricolage mosaic—a style involving broken or salvaged materials, like shards of ceramic tile or mirror—for the community-based mural-making that is his other passion.

Van Duinen, who now works at Social Justice High School in Little Village, joined the muralists at the nonprofit Chicago Public Art Group at about the same time he went to work for CPS. You can see his artwork on Lake Shore Drive underpasses and throughout the city. Two years ago, his Living 2007, a mosaic mural under the drive at Bryn Mawr, was the Reader's pick for best public artwork. Then last summer, his huge, multipart mural Imagine That won $100,000 in the first annual ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And that was just for second place. The first-place winner, New York-based oil painter Ran Ortner, won $250,000.

Tracy Van Duinen's Imagine That, under construction
  • Tracy Van Duinen's Imagine That, under construction

ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, was slated to be in Chicago last Thursday to talk up this summer's contest, but the flu kept him in Grand Rapids, according to his communications director, Paul Moore, who subbed for him at a meet 'n' greet that attracted a couple dozen potential contestants. Boasting the world's biggest cash award for art, ArtPrize will be held September 22 through October 10 in venues throughout downtown Grand Rapids, which is better known as a furniture manufacturing and design hub—home to Herman Miller and Steelcase—than as a destination for high art.

A sort of American Idol for artists, ArtPrize is open to anyone anywhere in the world, provided they can hook up with one of the venues. Winners are chosen in two rounds of voting, online or by phone (and yes, there's an app for that), by people at least 16 years old who register on-site in Grand Rapids. Last year more than 1,700 artists applied, of whom 1,262 found spots in 159 venues, and the ten winners were selected by 37,264 voters. Besides those jaw-dropping first- and second-place awards, there was $50,000 in cash for third place and $7,000 each for fourth through tenth. Funded by the Grand Rapids-based Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, whose mission encompasses Christian evangelism and public policy "that results in a freer, more virtuous, more prosperous society," the prizes will be the same this year, as will the nonrefundable $50 artist entry fee.

Artist registration (information at artprize.org) runs April 19-May 27. But that's only one part of the process. It's preceded by venue registration, which is open to any Grand Rapids building within the designated downtown area. That's currently under way, continuing through April 15. Once both registrations are complete, lists of venues and artists are posted online, and there's a monthlong matching period (June 1-July 1 this year), during which—like so many Internet soul-mate seekers—they scramble to connect with one another.

The match-up is critical for the artists, not only because they can't show without a venue but because getting paired with the right one enhances their chances of winning. Vote totals are never revealed, but an accounting firm does the tallying and relative standings are continuously updated. During the first week of the event, when ten finalists are chosen, voters can give a thumbs up or down (the downs don't affect cash prizes) to as many artworks as they wish. In the final round, during the closing weekend of the event, voters are allowed a single choice. Rick DeVos, who dreamed up this event to "reboot the conversation between art and the public," says buzz on Facebook or Twitter can drive traffic to out-of-the-way locations. But last year some prime venues got much more traffic than others—like the former site of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which clocked 80,000 visitors during the 17-day event—and artists at those places had a clear advantage. Van Duinen's mural had a strong location at the Grand Rapids Children's Museum. (Another factor is size: all ten prizewinners in 2009 were large-scale works.)

The original concept was that venue owners would function as curators. But last year, the former GRAM site was curated by Grand Rapids's Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, and DeVos says ArtPrize is adding four or five more large, institutionally curated venues this year. Some say that's a welcome development because it's expected to lead to a more discriminating selection of artists and raise the quality of the art on display. On the other hand, it's a departure from the original populist thrust of the event.

Michigan-based painter Richard Kooyman—a native of Grand Rapids who didn't participate in the inaugural competition and doesn't plan to enter this time around either—worries about how ArtPrize might relate to the DeVos Foundation's other priorities. He posted his concerns in the ArtPrize Web site comments section. Artists who participate, he says, should know where the prize money is coming from. A scion of the family that cofounded and continues to run Amway, Rick DeVos is the son of Dick and Betsy DeVos, the philanthropists behind the prize money. Dick was the ultraconservative Republican candidate for governor of Michigan in 2006, and Betsy is the sister of Blackwater Worldwide (now Xe) founder Erik Prince. Kooyman says out-of-town artists might not understand that Grand Rapids is "a pretty conservative town," where, in his opinion, it's "unlikely that really controversial artwork is going to get hung." They also might not know which venues are going to be best.

Van Duinen had two partners on the Grand Rapids project: regular mural-making collaborator Todd Osborne, who's also a CPS art teacher, and his brother, Corey Van Duinen, a sculptor and businessman who lives in the Grand Rapids area and scouted their spot at the Children's Museum. The three of them split the prize money and donated the mural to the museum. As a result of the exposure, Tracy Van Duinen and Osborne will be back in Grand Rapids this summer, working on a mural they've been commissioned to do for the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.

Van Duinen says his art is enough in demand now that people ask when he's planning to give up the day job. The answer is never. "Teaching is a calling for me," he says. "The other stuff is great and it infuses what I do, but that's primary." This summer, Corey Van Duinen will have one of his own mostly wood sculptures in the competition for the world's largest art prize.   

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