How Not to Handle Controversy You Invited Upon Yourself – ArtPrize at The BOB

ArtPrize Controversy at The BOB

As ArtPrize opens in Grand Rapids, an actual controversy has finally broken out.

It’s not the usual controversy (ie art snobs being upset that “commoners” are allowed to express opinions on what constitutes “good art).  It’s actually controversy over work considered to be obscene.

The Background

For the uninitiated, ArtPrize is an art competition held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan in September and October that began in 2009.  It was created by Amway heir Rick DeVos, borrowing liberally from Peter Diamandis’ X Prize for commercial space flight (which borrowed liberally from the Ortig Prize).  The way ArtPrize works is that a social platform allows both venues and artists to create profiles and seek each other out.

It’s like Art Gallery Online Dating.

There are plenty of good things about ArtPrize: it brings in millions of tourism dollars to the city, it gives artists more exposure, and it provides the public greater access to art which they would never otherwise see.

What I don’t like about ArtPrize is that its design ensures that only a sanitized, heavily-vetted collection of work actually gets seen by the public.  While the borders for ArtPrize venues are large, prime placement is right downtown along the Grand River – and very, very, very few people venture beyond that spot to see the works stashed inside businesses or placed on lawns at the periphery of the city.  ArtPrize ends up being Art Lite (with half the calories of regular art).

The Controversy

An artist named SinGh (who has previously had an entry in the parking lot of the B.O.B.) had his ArtPrize entry summarily stuffed in a garbage container by Doug Gilmore (owner of the B.O.B.) where it was installed.  To add insult to injury, an email was sent to SinGh warning him that his controversial sculpture was inappropriate and needed to be removed AFTER it had been pitched in the dumpster.

For his part, Gilmore claims that the entry was not what was agreed upon when the B.O.B. agreed to host SinGh.  For his part, SinGh claims he gave them the bare details of “an installation piece” and the B.O.B. agreed without asking further questions.

Why This Was Handled Badly

There are many problems with this situation from both an artistic and public relations standpoint.  First – ask yourself this? Would anyone who is actually a regular patron of the B.O.B. actually boycott the establishment if it hosted a controversial work of art during ArtPrize?  Hardly.

  • Hyperbolic Overreaction: There’s no need to have rushed into tossing the sculpture in the trash.  It’s highly likely an amenable solution could have been worked out quietly between the venue and the artist with no one the wiser.  The considerable connections of the Gilmore Group could likely have found the artist placement elsewhere on short notice if it came to that.
  • The B.O.B.’s Unique Role in Art:  It’s especially problematic that the B.O.B. is the venue that reacted so fervently to this situation because the B.O.B. routinely hosts cultural events.  They have Dr. Grins Comedy Club – where comedians from across the US (many of whom have said controversial things) perform.  The B.O.B. has several stages where musicians perform – likely many of them have also performed controversial works.  The B.O.B. has undertaken a measure of personal obligation to uphold artistic freedom because it’s how they make money.  It’s baldly hypcritical for them to censor this art given their unique position.
  • There’s No Such Thing As Bad Publicity: This remains true in large part.  People would likely have flocked to the B.O.B. to see the controversial entry (which is the entire reason the Gilmore Group opens the B.O.B. parking lot to artists in the first place).  They’ve now reduced the incentive to visit their premises during ArtPrize.

A Better Way

I would love to see ArtPrize actually stand up for free speech and restructure how it handles the matching process.  Rather than forcing artists to reveal what precisely their pieces will be, they should submit ONLY their physical space requirements and needs (electrical access, shelter from the elements, wifi, etc.).  Better yet, have the process be completely anonymous: don’t even allow venues to see which artist a request is from.

While venues might cringe at this – it actually immunizes them from criticism.  If they don’t know anything about the pieces they’re inviting into their space – they can’t be held accountable for the content of what they host.

What We Learn

From a Public Relations standpoint – here are the take-aways:

  1. Do thorough research before any endeavor. (Research is the key to virtually all successful promotional campaigns.)
  2. Have a plan and stick to it.  (It’s impossible to anticipate every eventuality, but there should always be a crisis PR plan in place and it should be able to guide you in handling situations like these.)
  3. Build relationships that allow for open dialogue between all parties in a situation.  (Avoid situations where you can’t trust all the parties in a partnership – particularly the higher the stakes are.)
  4. Don’t react too quickly or react based purely on emotion. (Simmer down. Judge slowly. Mull it over.  Resist the pressure we’re under in this age of ubiquitous social media.)
  5. Consider all of your publics when making a decision.  (Sure, the B.O.B. may have appeased a handful of people who might object to SinGh’s piece – but that comes at the expense of the entire artistic community.)

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