An Interview with Gabriel Craig, Ethical Metalsmith and Pro Bono Jeweler

August 16, 2012 · Print This Article

There’s a certain amount of romanticism in the idea of mining your own gold, mused metalsmith Gabriel Craig on his recent adventure through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Romantic, indeed. Compound the gold mining expedition with two soon-to-be newlyweds who have commissioned locally sourced, handcrafted wedding bands, and you have the makings of a Hollywood epic. Before you cast Craig as a roguish Matthew McConaughey, reconfigure his character to resemble more Michael Heizer with a touch of Henry David Thoreau. Beyond their mutual love of Stetsons, (see Craig pictured above on the far left), both Heizer and Craig have expressed their ecological concern through the displacement and destruction of landscape. The mining of precious metals is, in essence, an ecological disaster involving deforestation, mile-long trenches, and terrifying amounts of cyanide. As a jeweler and metalsmith, Craig has sought to bring attention to ethical craft practices, citing that his process begins with the harvesting of materials—the formation of deposits in the earth—long before they are cultivated by the human hand.

At the heart of Craig’s multifaceted practice, which includes metalsmithing, writing, urban farming, and performance, is a desire for transparency. His performative works in particular—the public demonstrations, participatory constructed situations, and documented expeditions—are conceived as a way to unveil narratives of production from material source to mercantile object. Craig is perhaps best known for Pro Bono Jeweler, a craft-performance that brings metalsmithing to the street via mobile jeweler’s bench. In essence, the piece functions as a public forum for dialogue inspired by the visible production and free distribution of metalwork. More recently, Craig has refocused his tactics towards hands-on participation. Raising Awareness brings spectators into the fold by soliciting gallery-goers to experience the process of “raising” a vessel from a flat sheet of metal. Ultimately, both Pro Bono Jeweler and Raising Awareness fulfill one of the crucial tenants of craft: to humanize the production of objects—all objects—whether manufactured or handcrafted. Further, like many of Craig’s projects, these performances tend to unpack propositions rather than polemics. Criticality emerges through opening-up systems, providing a venue for public discourse, and posing the question: how can craft—as a process and product, legacy and ideology—inspire shifts in human behavior that improve the world around us?

I spoke to Gabriel Craig in his new studio and production facility, Smith Shop, based out of Ponyride, a cooperative space for creative entrepreneurship in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I first encountered your practice in Hand+Made at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2010), an exhibition that featured the work of Theaster Gates, Ann Wilson, and other artists who, likewise, have interwoven craft practice and public performance. I’m curious: as a studio-based crafts person, how did performance began to eke its way into your practice?

Gabriel Craig: My first performance—that I would actually call a performance—was in graduate school, and more than anything, the piece came out of expressing frustration rather than any sort of intentional performative impulse. At the time—as an angsty twenty-three-year-old—I perceived a very insular conversation happening in jewelry. I thought that a way to engage a general audience, or an audience outside of that insular conversation, was to go and make jewelry on the street. I began by performing the Collegiate Jeweler (2007), which ended up turning into the Pro Bono Jeweler (2008, ongoing). During this same time, I was also doing working on a piece where I wrote a series of monologues about being a jeweler and performed them in a theater context, Narcissist: Eight Confessions of an Academic Jeweler (2008). Early in my career, I think I had a lot to say that I felt compelled to share with people in a more direct way than by making objects. For me, performance has always been a way to engage people and directly give them my opinion rather than mediating it through an object. I think that’s the same reason that I started writing, because I had the same burning desire to tell people what I thought.

SMP: Can you speak a bit more to the process by which you went from the impulse of disseminating your frustrations with academia to really crafting a performance?

GC: I was certainly aware of performance practices before then but, after I started doing performance, I started being more conscious of the framework that I fit into and how I wanted to situate my own practice. I always wanted my interactions with the general public to be honest and authentic. It really seemed to me that going out, making jewelry, and sharing that with people was the ultimate goal; essentially, sharing what I do because I love it. The system that I set up—giving away rings as I was making them—emerged from this very altruistic sensibility, but giving away rings really wasn’t the most important part. For me, the most important aspect was interacting with people and having an opportunity to talk to them about using their hands.

GC: There are a whole set of issues that surround handwork including supply chain, manufacturing, consumption, etc. Depending on the individual participant and where they’re at—the context of place—there a whole number of directions that the conversation could go. So many of the conversations I’ve had are about seeing something being made and, all of a sudden, having a window into where things come from. In a way, I’m demystifying manufacturing, but also, I think that showing someone even just one thing being made is an opportunity to start that conversation about how all things are made and get at that disconnect between production and consumption. It was from these genuine, meaningful interactions with people that the performance really developed.

When I was still in school, I got a lot of criticism for not using the traditional performance art language—my performances are essentially demonstrations—but that misses the point. Craft performance is different than art performance. Yes, my performances have the language of a demonstration, but my performances never sell anything. My goal is to share craft with people, and performing craft has different standards than performance art, but that’s my own opinion.

SMP: I find it interesting that you entered into a field that, because of the individuality of the Studio Craft movement, is not viewed as the most social of art forms. I’m thinking of the idea of the monastic craftsperson throwing a pot in a barn or crafting metal broach. Yet, out of this tradition, you were able to develop a social practice…

GC: Really?! Historically, I think of craft as having a really social bent to it in a vernacular sense. You’re thinking of making as in objects that are made in a very monastic way; however, the objects themselves are made to enter into a cultural vernacular of social use. If a potter makes a jug, the making process might be solitary, but the using process is always about some sort of social interaction or utilitarian function. I think that there is that dichotomy in craft—this balance of opposites—which I really enjoy.

“Sacré-Coeur,” made in collaboration with Amy Weiks

SMP: Your work seems indicative of this shift in the field of contemporary craft from the production of products to the processes of making. What’s your relationship to handmade objects versus the practices of handmaking?

GC: I find tremendous enjoyment in using handmade objects, but I find very little engaging intellectual value in them; meaning, the objects themselves don’t have the cultural relevance that the making can have in terms of what the process can mean and cause people to think about.

SMP: Continuing this thread, can you tell me a bit about your most recent project, Raising Awareness (2012, ongoing)?

GC: Raising Awareness takes the process of “raising,” which is taking a flat sheet of metal and forming it into a vessel shape by hammering it with repeated blows over a forming stake. This is a really meditative, highly skilled activity, but it is a process that is really simple when you think about it. All you’re doing is using a lever and fulcrum, essentially, to change the shape of a sheet of metal. It’s really basic—anyone can do it—but not a lot of people are good at it. Also, it’s a really traditional way to make metal objects and most people are totally unaware of this process.

GC: I had always wanted to do a project that was a little more hands-on than the Pro Bono Jeweler. The Pro Bono Jeweler was about showing, and I think there’s an opportunity to make a deeper, more intimate connection than through just conversation. The Pro Bono Jeweler started to get problematic because, often, I was having conversations about making things with an informed, museum-going audience and it stopped being a rich conversation. With Raising Awareness, even if you are already oriented to craft or to metalsmithing, the opportunity to pick something up and start making something—for it to be participatory—means this project facilitates a different level of interaction.

I’m doing a marathon Raising Awareness performance with another metalsmith, David Huang, at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids in September. We’re going to be raising every day for two plus weeks with metalsmith volunteers from around the country for a crowd of 200,000 people over the course of two-and-a-half weeks. That’s going to be something that’s really about sharing widely, and we’ll see how many people we can actually get to do some hands-on work. To contrast that project, I have a show next year at the National Ornamental Metals Museum in Memphis where the project is to work with the public to replicate an object—an accessioned historic metal vessel—that once replicated, will be accessioned by the museum. The idea of recreating a historic masterpiece gives the general public a window into a collection that they couldn’t get any other way. I think that that makes the museum environment such a rich place to execute this project. The intent of both iterations—Art Prize and the Ornamental Metals Museum—is to give the public a stake in making something in an active way and empower them to use their hands.

“Soundforge,” a multimedia collaboration with Michael Remson

SMP: Having read a bit of your writing, I gather you’re insanely knowledgeable about the history of craft practice and I feel as though you imbue quite a bit of your work with an early-twentieth century Arts and Crafts mentality that brings together concepts relating to mastery, skill, education, preservation, etc. I’m wondering if you consider yourself within a certain legacy and do you consider that legacy when conceiving, particularly, of these participatory projects?

GC: I’m glad that you picked up on that because the utopian aspect of craft is something I really geek-out on! I’m shamelessly romantic about it. I wish that craft was this model of production that could be perfect and anyone could make a living from it, but in reality, it’s so deeply flawed. I’m really interested in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the idea that turn of the twentieth century crafters were looking back romantically to the Medieval era and what it was to be a maker during that period. It’s funny because life was horrible for Medieval crafters—they were serfs!—yet the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was completely trying to emulate that lifestyle. I think there’s a certain optimism in the idea of making things and deriving enjoyment from it, but simultaneously, grounding these practices in a social context; meaning, really being aware of where things come from, questioning the status quo and labor practices, and having a respect for the environment. If you go back and you read some of the Arts and Crafts practitioners, they were writing about factories polluting the rivers and destroying the land of the English countryside. All of this is still completely applicable now. Right now, I’m finishing this biography of C.R. Ashbee by Alan Crawford, and Crawford is meticulous—the detail to which he writes about the workmen in theses handcraft studios! Anyway, he describes how Ashbee pulled kids off the streets in the East End of London at the end of the nineteenth century, which at the time was really impoverished, and gives them jobs as jewelers: training them, employing them, watching them grow, and really creating an entire lifestyle and an intentional community. Thinking about that and looking at what I’m doing here, I can’t help but project a parallel pursuit. Even if it’s not exactly the same, there’s a certain amount of intentional social engagement that now exists here—out of necessity! The East End of London was a really tough place and Detroit is a really tough place too. But the idea of recruiting on the streets of Corktown is problematic—imperialism and colonialism weren’t a problem for Ashbee. Here you need to meet people on their own terms; but regardless, craft does have something to offer.

Recycled gold ready to be melted in an ingot

SMP: I’m interested in the notion of an “ethical jeweler.” Can you elaborate on the ethical considerations within your practice?

GC: I have a real penchant towards talking about material sourcing, and it’s a conversation that I feel often falls on deaf ears. The issue first came to my attention through Ethical Metalsmiths, which is a nonprofit organization that advocates for mining reform and ethical material sourcing for jewelry. Metal mining is such an environmentally devastating industry. If you’re mining metal now, the practice is “open pit mining.” The basic premise of open pit mining is to find a gold rich area, locate a vein, and then dig an enormous hole in the ground, which can be miles wide and miles deep in some cases. Then, you take all the ore that contains the gold, crush it, put it on a huge tarp, and spray it with cyanide, (it’s the cyanide that leaches the gold out of the rock matrix). The gold and cyanide runs off, and the compounds are separated, using electrolytic deposition, and what you’re left with is waste cyanide and all this crushed rock. All the chemicals that are naturally occurring in rock ore – like sulfides and phosphides – begin to leech out through their exposure to air and rain. Even if this is done in a really responsible fashion, there’s no way to avoid destroying a significant portion of landscape in addition to all the other contamination concerns. Containing cyanide and these chemicals in sludge ponds is hugely imperative because even just a small spill can poison a watershed. The regulation of this in the US and Canada is fairly good, but in other parts of the world—countries that aren’t able to enforce mining laws—there’s real potential for disaster there.

Newlyweds to be Jenna Wainwright and Rajiv Jaswa prospecting for gold with metalsmiths Todd Pownell and Gabriel Craig, (left); Craig and Jaswa mid-dig, (center); and Craig examining the dregs of his gold pan, (right).

SMP: And what was it that led you on your gold mining expedition?

GC: The idea was to create a narrative piece that illustrated the difficulty of extracting gold and demonstrated what it actually takes to extract a ubiquitous metal from the earth. I had written a more technical/academic article in 2008, “Seeing Green,” for Metalsmithing Magazine about sustainable jewelry making as it existed at that time, but writing facts and figures on paper is wholly different from constructing a narrative that readers can really relate to. There’s a certain amount of romanticism in the idea of mining your own gold. I thought that putting a personal face on the process would be an interesting approach to advocate for better practices. So, I connected with another jeweler and a couple who wanted to have wedding rings made, and the idea was to go and obtain the gold to create the wedding rings in South Dakota. We prospected on a week-long expedition, and in the end, we didn’t find nearly enough gold for the rings to be made. We did manage to document the pursuit of gold—what we were all experiencing—throughout the process. (View videos of the expedition on Vimeo.) The prospecting took place in the middle of this pristine wilderness in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is such beautiful country, and what did we do? We dug a ten-foot hole in the ground to try to find gold and, in the process, we ruined the landscape—basically trying to avoid knocking over trees and displacing the order of things. Even on the very small scale which we were doing this, we were still really conscious of the fact that we were spoiling the landscape.

The wedding bands inscribed with the Black Hills river bed, in process (left) and finished (right)

GC: I think it’s important to tell stories about material sourcing. We need to expose the narratives of where things come from, not starting from when it arrives as raw material for a craftsperson to use, but starting where the material itself is sourced—things start before a maker even touches them. Even if a maker’s studio is really environmentally conscious and there’s the imperative to make by hand versus through industrial means, if the materials are obtained in a really irresponsible way, I think that taint isn’t erased by making by hand. And so often, that is the case! I had a conversation in Washington, D.C. last week with Daniel Michalik, who is a furniture maker. Almost all of his furniture incorporates cork and he did this wonderful project for Core77 where he went to Portugal and documented the cork harvest. He had hundreds of photos documenting his total immersion in the cork industry from tree to factory. I think that that’s the sort of education that needs to be available for all craft products especially if we’re going to talk about craft as having an ethical imperative. I don’t understand how it’s not a completely holistic conversation!

SMP: How has your practice changed since your first exposure to ethical sourcing?

GC: The first time I saw an Ethical Metalsmiths presentation at a conference I was shocked. My first thought was: What do I do now? Do I quit? I think it’s that tension between something that you’re in love with but at the same time is horrible. How do you resolve or else deal with that tension? I don’t think the world will be a better place if I quit making jewelry, but maybe if I work from within the existing system, there’s the potential that I can do my small part to change it. Craft being a force for good is essential to my worldview and how I approach my practice. I think I’m just compelled to do positive things.

Gabriel Craig is a Detroit-based metalsmith, writer and craft activist. His studio and workshop – Smith Shop – is currently being launched from Ponyride, a cooperative space for art, craft, design and education, in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Craig’s work is included in 40 under 40: Craft Futures, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum until February 2013. Craig will be speaking at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s symposium, “Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary American Culture,” Nov 8-9, 2012. Craig will perform Raising Awareness daily with David Huang, September 19 through October 7 at the B.O.B. in Grand Rapids, Michigan as part of ArtPrize 2012. For more visit: www.gabrielcraigmetalsmith.com




Curate This! Offers Latest Contest Model for Contemporary Art Exhibitions

October 21, 2009 · Print This Article

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Curate This! a city-wide international emerging contemporary art and design exhibition that starts June 24, 2010 in Denver, Colorado, is the latest example of how some regional arts organizations are trying to encourage a greater engagement in contemporary art among the general public by circumventing traditional approaches to group exhibition-making (particularly the top-down selection processes of curators or juries) in favor of a contest model, one which allows for the display of work by a wide field of entrants whose efforts are assessed and judged by the public. Unlike most group contemporary art shows, which tend to be organized around a theme or other connective thread, the contest model offers viewers something altogether different: a winner. A winner that the audience can help choose. A winner who, if the contest has the right backers, can earn big, maybe even big enough to be life-changing, cash prizes.

Unlike Grand Rapids’ recent, quarter of a million dollar ArtPrize, Curate This! offers its single winner a somewhat more modest prize of $10,000. And unlike ArtPrize, which relied entirely on the public to select the winners, Curate This! shoots for a kind of middle ground between juried exhibition and the pure populism of the contest mode. In fact, the title of Curate This! is somewhat misleading, because the public isn’t in any way involved in the curation of the artworks on display. That job is still left to a panel of professional curatorial “advisers” whose identity will remain hidden until the selections have been made. Once that happens, the selected entries will go on view at various Denver-area venues and at that point the public will vote on a winner. (There will also be a Curator’s Choice Award, but as far as I can tell there is no financial prize connected to it).

Unlike the ArtPrize, which for a number of reasons seems like an ineffective and somewhat suspiciously motivated model, I don’t see much that’s problematic in what the city of Denver and the BECA Foundation (the Foundation arm of the New Orleans-based Bridge for Emerging Contemporay Art) are trying to do with Curate This! For one, the $10,000 prize, while still generous and attention-grabbing, isn’t stratospherically out of proportion to what an artist might (once) have received from a regional grants foundation, pre-recession anyway. For another, the prize money comes from The BECA Foundation itself, a nonprofit organization whose goals–to “serve as a bridge by which new ideas and new art + design flow freely between New Orleans and the larger national and international contemporary art + design communities” and to “support innovation, exploration and the advancement of new ideas in contemporary visual art + design” are publicly in line with those of this contest.

Competitions like Curate This! and even ArtPrize suggest that the contest model will be primarily useful as a marketing and public relations tool for cities who wish to engage new audiences in contemporary art along with their region’s other cultural offerings. In the case of Curate This!, that city is Denver, but the exhibition goes beyond regional interests in its inclusion of international entrants, which serves to connect Denver’s art world with its counterpart in other cities and countries. That all makes sense, and for these reasons the organizers behind this particular competition seem to be approaching it in a thoughtful and notably anti-sensationalistic fashion.

Beyond its attractions to a general public, could the contest model offer something valuable to arts professionals, even to (gasp!) curators themselves? It’s hard to say, but what I am certain of is that contests like these pose little threat to the top-dog model that already characterizes the curatorial profession at large. Hans Ulrich Obrist will still be the winner, this year’s #1 guy (in Art Review magazine’s estimation, at least). It’s still too early to tell whether the contemporary art contest is just a passing fad or will ultimately prove popular enough (and a big enough revenue-generator) to be taken up en masse by other organizations and cities. If it does, I’m of the opinion that that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing–as long as we don’t inadvertently convince people that other forms of public financial support are dispensable when there are so many big cash prizes out there for artists to win.




Sh*tload of (Family) Money Awarded to Winners of the Inaugural “ArtPrize”

October 9, 2009 · Print This Article

The winner of the first annual edition of ArtPrize has been announced, and it’s Ran Ortner from Brooklyn, New York. The Prize is a contemporary art competition based in Grand Rapids, Michigan that has eschewed traditional expert juries in favor of a public vote on the winners. Ortner, 50, won the top prize of $250,000 for a painting titled “Open Water No. 24,” a dramatic, 6 x 19 foot oil painting depicting ocean waves in a realistic fashion.

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Taking the second prize and its $100,000 award was Chicago artist Tracy Van Duinen for his tile mural titled “Imagine That!” on the façade of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

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The $50,000 third prize went to artist Eric Daigh of Traverse City for his portraits made entirely from colored pushpins.

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The other artists in the Top Ten each received $7,500 prizes. All winners of the ArtPrize were determined by votes cast on the ArtPrize Web site or via text messages sent from cell phones. The winners were announced last night.

$449,000 — the total amount of prize money in the contest–is, as they say, a shitload of cash. This alone has made ArtPrize the most monetarily rewarding contemporary art competition in the world right now. Where did contest organizer and social media entrepreneur Rick de Vos (who established the website Spout.com, a social-networking site for film buffs) get it from? The Dick and Betsy De Vos Family Foundation (Rick De Vos’ parents), who is listed as ArtPrize’s primary sponsor (Rick De Vos is the grandson of Amway’s cofounder). Numerous other De Vos family relations were also top contributors to the contest funds (see here for the full list of ArtPrize sponsors). The Dick and Betsy De Vos Family Foundation’s mission, according to its 2006 funding guidelines, is

“to serve as faithful stewards of God’s blessings through a focus on 1) Christian Evangelism through church building, family building, and youth programming; 2) Education through programs that provide support for parental choices in determining where their elementary and secondary school-aged children attend school; 3) Public Policy that results in a freer, more virtuous, more prosperous society. The Foundation does not allocate funds to individuals, for-profit organizations, or candidates for political office.”

(If you’re interested, you can learn more about which groups and projects fall into the categories listed above by reading about the Foundation’s funding choices here and here).

Clearly, the material benefits to artists gained from winning the three top prizes and even the lesser amounts are tremendous. In terms of its financial benefits, winning a contest like this one far is better than winning a grant–at least in terms of how profitable it is. Rick De Vos told the Detroit Free Press that his goals in establishing the contest were to promote conversations about art and to create a hip cultural event for Grand Rapids, Michigan. And the contest succeeded in creating lots of buzz and tons of entries–1,262 artists entered the contest, and nearly 14,000 votes were counted in the final round (334,000 votes were cast for the initial pool of entrants). So not only did the contest offer the biggest monetary prize, it promised a democratization of the means of selection. Everyone who took the time to register in person at the ArtPrize event got to vote on the works of art hanging before them. And the results of their votes mattered – a lot.

But does ArtPrize offer a viable model for others to follow? Not really, as I see it. For one thing, it’s hardly a replicable format. If de Vos had rustled up that much cash in any other way other than tapping family money, I’d be more apt to sit up and pay attention. But the fact remains that this contest with its enormous prize would not have been possible without primary support from a single Foundation that, at least in its other funding efforts, has shown itself to have very specific social and political agendas.

Yes, the Grand Rapids audience was given the empowering opportunity to circumvent the critics and the curators and the other so-called gatekeepers to make their own statement about which artists are most deserving of recognition.  Lucky for everyone involved, it appears that none of the artists selected for voted the top three winners make the type of work that would prove to be embarrassing to the contest’s sponsors – no poop photographs, no naked ladies, no same-sex coupling. What would have happened, I wonder, if an unknown artist making photographs with subject matter similar to that of Catherine Opie’s “Domestic” series had won? Nothing, I’m sure – but it’s a good bet that if that happened, next year’s ArtPrize wouldn’t have mom and dad’s big money behind it. And probably not nearly the number of artists entering the contest. And audiences/voters caring about it.

Art21 contributor Nicole Carruth was asked by the ArtPrize organizers to reflect on the significance of the contest through a series of written essays that included an interview with Mary Jane Jacob, Professor and Executive Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the interview, Jacob offers a pointed critique of the contest, which in part centers around her misgivings about the competition’s huge prize award. Notes Jacob:

“My real misgiving strategically, long-term, with the project is the huge disparity in the prize money in an art world where artists need a lot of support — art always does.

We’re at the 48th anniversary of the Calder, which was a high point of public motivation of art, and the NEA’s flowering, and so forth. We’ve seen the demise of the individual artist grant program and we’re still suffering from that. Some grant programs were out there already, some ramped up further, like Pew in Philadelphia or Bush in Minneapolis. But then other ones with a lot less resources and smaller amounts have done volumes of work, like Creative Capital and Artadia. And nobody in any of those is getting $250,000. I think we’re not looking at $250,000 artists here. I have a problem with the division it creates when that amount of money, $500,000, could be spread in equal or on more egalitarian ways.  That could support 10 or more artists.

… That confrontation, that nexus between the aspiring artist, emerging artist, overlooked artist and the broader public is a great conversation. We see it enacted here and it’s a great success, I think, on that level. But then when the final result becomes something that then shifts to a paradigm that is more like American Idol or winning the lottery, it doesn’t necessarily sustain either that individual or this system or the art world. I even find it problematic with colleagues from those institutions that I’ve named who are struggling to have something that doesn’t join the conversation of [artist] development, sustainability and support…To see that supporting artists is a positive and necessary endeavor has a great ripple effect.”

Jacob’s critique offers us an invaluable framework for considering the true value of big-money contests such as this one and, even more importantly in my mind, for putting the “generosity” of sponsors like the de Vos Family into its proper context. Many people from various points on the political spectrum are troubled by government funding of artists, and to be sure there are a  number of valid reasons for their discomfort. But we should think twice about investing too heavily in the contest model offered by ArtPrize.

To my mind, the “democracy” of choice promised by ArtPrize masks a more distrubing desire on the part of its major sponsors to do away with government support of the arts advocated by those who they imply are “cultural elites.” But as Jacob points out, not everyone can win the lottery, and not all artists will win an ArtPrize. ArtPrize makes for some razzle-dazzle regional publicity, sure–but it doesn’t present any real alternatives that the rest of us can run with.