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 Contemporary 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.