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Art That Commerce Can Get Behind

A version of Grand Rapids' big-money populist Art Prize comes to Chicago

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Art Prize is doing big things for its little hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. By its own accounting (and as previously discussed here), the three-week contest attracted 200,000 visitors to its inaugural edition last summer by inviting them to decide which of 1,262 entries displayed in 159 downtown venues would win the world's biggest cash prizes for visual art. It also stirred up enough publicity to put Grand Rapids—best known till now as a furniture-manufacturing center—on the art-world map.

Not all the buzz was positive. The American Idol-style voting and the conservative politics of the family behind the contest (the DeVoses of Amway fame) drew their share of criticism. But in the end Art Prize registered as a triumph as outsize as its $449,000 total payout—a huge, happy, populist festival that turned art criticism into sport for the masses.

That kind of success inspires imitators—ergo Art Loop Open, which runs in downtown Chicago October 15-29. The stakes aren't as princely: first prize in Grand Rapids is $250,000; here, it'll be $25,000. But then you don't have to brave the Michigan outback to participate. The deadline for entries is August 31.

Art Loop Open is the brainchild of Chicago Artists' Coalition executive director Carolina Jayaram. When the Grand Rapids Art Prize team came to Chicago last spring to recruit contestants for 2010, Jayaram met with them, decided something similar could work here, and proposed the idea to Ty Tabing, executive director of the Chicago Loop Alliance, a downtown booster group. CAC and the CLA were already partnering on the pop-up galleries that are putting local art into empty Loop storefronts, and Jayaram says Tabing and his staff were immediately enthusiastic, as were city officials, including Mayor Daley and cultural affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg.

With only a few months of lead time and no deep-pocketed backer like Art Prize founder Rick DeVos, the Chicago event is starting relatively small. Besides the $25,000 first prize, ALO will hand out second and third prizes of $15,000 and $10,000 (Art Prize: $100,000 and $50,000), plus a roster of specialty awards that's still being put together. So far it includes $5,000 for the wittiest piece (funded by the Wit Hotel) and $5,000 (from the Driehaus Foundation) for the best representational work.

Unless they're CAC members, who get a $20 discount, ALO entrants will pay a bit more for the chance to win a lot less. The entry fee is $65, compared to $50 for Grand Rapids. But the odds here will be better. While Art Prize boasts that it's open to anyone, anywhere in the world—and last year competitors came from 41 states and 14 countries, with a Chicagoan, mosaicist Tracy Van Duinen, taking second place—the Loop contest will be limited to only about 200 artists, 18 years old and up, who live and/or work in the greater Chicago area (Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties).

And in another departure from the Grand Rapids model, participants will be selected by a jury of experts.

With Art Prize, local landlords get to play curator: the rules require that every artist hook up with a venue—any registered building within a three-square-mile footprint—before applying. In Chicago the lucky 200 will be chosen by a four-member panel consisting of independent curator and former CAC board chair Susan Aurinko, Museum of Contemporary Art associate curator Tricia Van Eck, University of Chicago arts development director Theaster Gates, and School of the Art Institute sculpture professor Mary Jane Jacob. Applicants won't get feedback other than a thumbs up or down, but Jayaram says it'll be "a wonderful experience for many of these artists just to be seen by this jury."

Another big difference: ALO will consist of a mere dozen venues, and artists won't get a say in which one displays their work. After the jurors pick the art, a "curatorial production team" will sort, organize, and install it. The sites are the Hard Rock, Allegro, Burnham, Wit, Palmer House, and W hotels; the Oriental and Palace theaters; Macy's, the Merchandise Mart, MetraMarket at Ogilvie Transportation Center, and Block 37.

Jayaram says the venues were chosen with an eye to consistency, but location will be key. Art shown at heavily trafficked event hubs in Grand Rapids (like the former art museum, which logged 80,000 visitors during last year's Art Prize) was more likely to be seen and therefore more likely to attract votes. ALO has a cluster of venues on or near State Street—including Block 37, which will display about half of the entries and house the ALO Cafe, where visitors can register and cast their ballots. Time will tell, but Block 37 may turn out to be a more advantageous perch than others out at the fringes of the Loop.

The public will pick ten finalists during the first week of balloting, voting by phone or computer as often as they like, but only once per piece. Art and artists' profiles will be viewable at artloopopen.com, but prospective voters have to register in the flesh at an ALO venue. Voting tech—including wall cards that talk to smart phones—is being handled by the graduate school of design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, with help from Microsoft.

During the second round of voting, October 22-28, members of the public will get just one vote each. Winners will be announced at a party at Block 37 on October 29, where the ten finalist works will be auctioned off. The rest of the art will remain up through the first two weeks of November, when they'll be available for purchase. ALO will collect a 30 percent commission on anything sold.

As reported in the June 17 Reader, the Loop pop-up gallery project hit a bump earlier in the summer when one of the participating artists, Joseph Ravens, put nude photos in his Wabash Avenue show. Lesson learned: the artists' instructions for ALO forbid "explicit content" along with "fire or illegal substances," and Jayaram says venue managers will be signing off on whatever goes into their buildings before it goes up. There won't be any nudity, she says—and there probably won't be much else that's controversial, either.

If you're an artist looking to snag one of the top prizes, here's a tip: they'll likely go to entries that are big, colorful, representational, and gimmicky. The list of 2009 Art Prize finalists included a life-size moose sculpted of welded nails, some four-by-six-foot superrealist portraits made of 50,000 pushpins each, a Brobdingnagian table-and-chairs set, and two colossal sea monsters (one of them made of balloons). The $250,000 first place award went to New York artist Ran Ortner for Open Water #24, an 19-foot-long painting of the ocean.   

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