8 Suggestions for a 2011 Visual Art Contest

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” series. Originally appeared on the site 10/25/2010

Here’s the problem: ideologically, most everyone in the Artworld likes things to be unstructured, open, and mellow.  Yet when a big pile of cash gets plopped on the table, we all get serious. We forget that humans, by nature, play to win.

So my first suggestion for a 2011 Cash-Prize Art Contest: let’s not pretend to be casual when money is on the line. Let’s be intense, organized, fastidious, and detail-oriented. Let’s treat these scarce opportunities with a little bit of reverence, and a willingness to show an ID when voting for an artist. Because if a contest could become a forum for the public serving as annual judge and jury for public art projects, museum exhibit nomination, and/or Art Star status, it could be a unique and radical opportunity for Chicago artists, something not seen in any other city.

So here are some ideas I’d like to throw out for discussion:

1.      Judge the art not on just “best”, but “best in class”. Best art to Hang Above Couch, Best Concept that Could Be Adapted for a Public Art Piece, or People’s Choice for Museum Acquisition.

2.      No entry fees for artists, but a smaller cash prize. Or finance it like a lotto, everyone pays in, and all the money in the pot goes to the winners.

3.      Equality of venue. One big warehouse. Temporary white walls, aisles, and you snake your way through the exhibit, casting your vote as you exit.

4.       Physical, on-site voting. You register, show an ID, vote once in person.

5.      Wide engagement of the non-art public. Media companies all donate some ad space in the category of public service announcements. Market the idea of the citizens picking their cities artists.

6.      Lobbying. This is the most difficult to enforce, as seen through the 40 emails, blog posts and Facebook feeds I’ve seen today regarding the top 10 finalists. If the goal is to limit mobilizing voters, then a few steps can be taken. Among them:

a.       Everyone is informed of these restrictions early in the process. Yada yada legalese is separated from real rules and regulations. Media outlets are requested to embargo specifics about particular artists, and everyone stays vigilant and reports violations, which are quickly and quietly taken down. Yet the risk is only of damaging the reputation of the artist, not cause for disqualification.

b.      Conversely, everyone is encouraged to use their networks to “get out the vote” and encourage participation, rather than particular endorsement.

c.       Winners/Finalists are not announced based on a timeline, but when all the checks, balances and equations are complete.

7. Artwork size restrictions. That might sound crazy, but what if everyone had to keep it to 5′ x 5′ x 3′?  Large installations are impressive by nature, and without size restrictions, everyone is going to catch on that bigger works command bigger spots and more “real estate” within the contest area.

8. Host the commercial aspect – the loop, the tours, the hotels – as the post-contest exhibit phase. That will allow the contest to keep corporate sponsorship, without tipping the scales of the contest. Just like in television contests – first the contest, then the national tour. After the voting is done and winners announced, then the art can be put all over the city.

Bonus suggestion: No artists names on the wall. Vote for the art, not the artist.

The first key to having a successful art contest, one that truly serves the community, is to create some clear goals that best serve the artists. Once the art community is unified, they can best speak to the realities of a contest’s execution.

One commentator suggested a media free-for-all, where the artists’ ability to rally and campaign would all be a part of the competition. Although this is a valid option, and a more feasible one to execute, it just be too eerily similar to the current system, wherein the most profitable grants and opportunities are already often merely popularity contests, except that they are selected by a higher-ranking crowd.

This populist track could be a viable track – if we take it seriously.