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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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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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