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Eye Exam: The Self-Hanged Jury

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First prize: John Dempsey's "The Great American Landscape"

By Jason Foumberg

Last week’s short-lived controversy surrounding Chicago’s first Art Loop Open, spawned by the ouster of competitor Bernard Williams, stirred a small media frenzy. Prior to Williams’ disqualification and later reinstatement by the competition’s organizers, a few media outlets promoted the event and explained the ground rules. But controversy is media gold, and by last Friday everyone was buzzing about Williams’ disqualification.

In the rush of reporting, no journalists or commentators officially put into print why the controversy mattered. Few publicly shamed the organizers for their mistake, or commended them for sticking to their rules; nobody opined whether or not cell-phone text-message voting really empowered the public to command contemporary art; nobody said that this competition was good for the community. Even after the prizes were handed out, no media outlets endorsed the winners or empathized with the losers. Does this polite journalism mean there’s a lack of critical capacity in our local arts coverage? Or does the silence imply a shared agreement: the competition wasn’t welcome from the start?

In mid-August, Deanna Isaacs of the Chicago Reader mapped the ins-and-outs of the coming circus. She explained how the new Art Loop Open competition was modeled on the successful ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Readers may have been able to gather the critical subtext of Isaacs’ otherwise straightforward article: “local landlords get to play curator,” she wrote, and the ArtPrize was a “populist festival that turned art criticism into sport for the masses.” Would these subversions of powerful roles (curators, critics) be game-changers for underprivileged contemporary artists? No comment.

Time Out Chicago’s Lauren Weinberg asked a pointed question in her art column last week: “In the annals of Chicago’s public art, will we remember [the Art Loop Open] as a humiliating sequel to Cows on Parade or as a classy crowd-pleaser like Anish Kapoor’s ‘Bean’?” She then tossed around the pros and cons of a public art competition, but did not answer the question she asked.

The Chicago Tribune’s art feature writer Lauren Viera reported on the Williams controversy and interviewed upset contestants. I personally contacted Viera and questioned why she had not editorialized on the controversy. As a representative of the city’s most widely circulated newspaper, she missed an opportunity to rally a public opinion. Viera responded that if readers desired the Tribune to think critically about the controversy, they could submit a request in writing.

The entire press coverage of the Art Loop Open competition—and not just the small controversy over Williams—was tepid and passive when it should have been passionate and opinionated. In his blog on the Chicago Now consortium, Abraham Ritchie did fervently call for the ALO to rescind their decision on Williams, even going so far to speculate on a sabotage for the $25,000 prize. “Competition can bring out the worst in people,” he wrote. Later, Duncan MacKenzie on the Bad at Sports blog justified the use of sabotage in art competitions: “With real money at stake you have to expect that every artist is going to do what they can to get in to the finals.”

Indeed, the controversy made everyone look unstable. The Art Loop Open pretended that its competition wasn’t a popularity contest when it disqualified Bernard Williams, although as it functioned, that’s all and only what it was. Williams wrote that the disqualification “feels like a lynching” on the ALO’s Facebook page. Nobody flinched at this exaggerated claim of a violent and hateful crime.

I’ll be the first to say that we don’t need an art competition like this in Chicago. Certainly I do not want to deny artists the possibility of making money, whether hard earned or a quick buck. There are only two ways that an artwork can earn its maker some cash—sales and awards—and both are few and far between. But the type of competition waged here was not productive in the long term. For artists, there is already too much false hope in the art world.

Although the Loop Alliance is doing good work to bring art into new venues, such as the pop-up galleries, this competition did not draw positive attention to the visual arts, nor did it engage the public as it hoped to do—it’s likely that tourists who bed at upscale hotels like the Palmer House and The Wit are already used to seeing art in such places. I’ll also be the first to say that John Dempsey’s winning painting is not a great painting or a great work of art—he’s made better paintings than this piece of fluff. I don’t agree that this competition turned art criticism into a public sport, as Deanna Isaacs commented, because the public here wasn’t performing criticism as I know and love it. They were merely shopping for a winner.

The ALO competition most strikingly failed in the context of other concurrent art competitions in Chicago. This month the newly established Propeller Fund announced the recipients of artist grants and money prizes. Both the Art Loop Open and the Propeller Fund pushed a mandate that the public must be engaged with contemporary art. The ALO tried to accomplish this by getting the public involved as second-tier judges (first, an ALO jury whittled 700 applicants into 200 contestants), whereas the Propeller Fund funneled cash through a jury to artists who promise to use the money to engage the public. The difference is small but significant. The ALO tried to empower the public, but Propeller empowers artists to engage the public. Even though I don’t agree with all of the Propeller Fund’s grants (the rebuilding of a lost public sculpture, a N55 land cairn, with sixteen extant identical sculptures, reeks of an obscure academic exercise, although most of the other Propeller winners are totally deserving), I do agree with their methodology because this money has wings. New organizations and collaborations will be built. That is a great model for community support.

9 Responses to “Eye Exam: The Self-Hanged Jury”

  1. richardkooyman Says:

    Great insight into Art Loop Jason.
    ArtPrize in Grand Rapids had an even more insidious agenda to replace knowledge about art with populist public opinion. ArtPrize is funded by The Christian Evangelical Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation a ultra conservative foundation that supports right wing think tanks such as the CATO Institute, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy and The Acton Institute a Christian think tank. The DBV Foundation recently donated $22.5million dollars to form the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center which has begun free training programs across the country for arts organization.
    ArtPrize shares with Art Loop the questions of what model do we want to construct in how people view and support the arts? Do we really want a culture where critical writing and viewpoints are replaced by public opinion? Before Chicago answers that question it should realize that public opinion includes “Joe the Plumbers”opinion (my apologies to all progress thinking plumbers) alongside any art savvy opinions.
    This years Art Loop results seem to stand shoulders above what the people of SW Michigan picked. To see what a public art competition in the heartland of conservatism really looks like visit

  2. Abraham Ritchie Says:

    I’d like to assert that there was more analysis in the article that Mr. Foumberg refers to than to “fervently call for the ALO to rescind their decision on Williams.”

    I specifically addressed cell phone voting, and the issues that attended that.

    I also assessed the competition of theoretical and technical levels. On a theoretical level ALO ” made no illusion that art was at the service of commerce,” technically the chosen venues were “some of the worst possible for displaying art”

    Read the entry for yourself:

  3. Jason Foumberg Says:

    Thanks Abraham.

  4. laurenviera Says:


    Nice editorial. But please, for the future, if you plan to quote or cite sources, let him or her know that you are doing so, and in what context. This is very, very basic Journalism. Failure to do so not only risks inserting inaccuracies into your work (as you have managed to do above), it also may result in libel, which is a much more serious issue. Lifting comments posted on Facebook (and re-typing them incorrectly, I should add) does not qualify as thorough and accurate reporting.

    For the record, following is the series of comments from said Facebook post, which you have access to as well:

    Jason Foumberg: i think it’s important to report the facts, as you have, but also you’re in a position to push the Art Loop Open to possibly change things… no reason to leave editorial or opinion out of a newspaper article.
    October 25 at 3:04pm

    Lauren Viera: Jason, editorial/opining is reserved for reviews/editorials at the Tribune. As this is a straight-forward news story, it’s purely a factual report. Hope that makes sense.
    October 25 at 3:17pm

    Jason Foumberg: of course that makes sense, but it’s not a great excuse! I think people understand what has gone wrong here, but we’re still needing resolution or enthusiasm for a particular point of view, just as you would write in a review.
    October 25 at 3:36pm

    Lauren Viera: if resolution/enthusiasm is sought by the community, there’s always the option of writing a letter-to-the-editor and/or rallying for an editorial:

  5. Jason Foumberg Says:

    Lauren, I paraphrased what you wrote and I believe it is accurately interpreted. Basically you wrote that if people want you to be enthusiastic about something, or to think about solutions regarding a news story, then they would have to write a letter. Also, I’m not a trained journalist, as you are (?), so thanks for the tips about accurate and through reporting. But Facebook and twitter are being increasingly used as reportage, so you’re facing an uphill battle on that one.

  6. laurenviera Says:

    Thanks, Jason.

    And yes: Letters to the ed are always, always encouraged!

  7. kathrynborn Says:

    We all take our point of view with us when we look at a situation/competition like this. I think to take a stand on this is like Fillini fans doing a critical unpacking of the movie “Avatar”. It wasn’t designed to be unpacked – it was just a very commercial, mainstream thing.

    Where I think it gets complicated is that this type of contest, in a perfect world, wouldn’t get the artists it got. The high-art artists would have so many options they wouldn’t have to participate in cattle calls.

    But it’s a highly imperfect world for artists. They struggle to make money and jump at opportunities. And judging it is the equivalent of Tony Fitzpatrick being enraged by the Bravo auditions. But I covered it, saw that 2-block line with my own eyes, and right or wrong – the artists lined up.

    My feeling is that the visual arts in Chicago is a ghetto. The galleries are broke, the state is bankrupt, the grants support a select few (who make very conceptually-based work), and we have no system that helps the bad artists realize they should pack up and go home. So we have this huge glut.

    Whenever you have that much “supply” and so little “demand” – basic economics will follow. Artists are a compromised people, they do what they feel they have to do. I mean, this was $70 to enter, what about that art Chicago thing that charged $900 per artist? What about pay-to-play galleries? The list goes on and on.

    So at this point, I can’t judge ALO – but I have a desire to bring to light the fact the art scene is a ghetto. See in that context, all these other things make sense, and personally I can’t judge them for doing what they have to do. If my practice was more active, I probably would have entered.

  8. mountshang Says:

    No, Chicago doesn’t really need an art competition like this one.

    But it does need exhibitions of work that is too ambitious for street fairs, but also may fall outside agendas acceptable in the contemporary artworld. Which is exactly what the Grand Rapids ArtPrize enabled, as it offered a really big prize while transforming every participating downtown business person into a gallerist who selected as well as displayed the work on his or her premises.

    Not to say that there is no place for pieces that critique the foibles of modern civilization, but we still celebrate all that historical art whose primary function was to make some person, ideology, or institution look really, really good. In the 20th Century, the murderous totalitarian regimes, as well as exploitative commercialism, taught us to abhor any such positive agendas. But do expressions of irony, despair, loathing, or outrage actually threaten the interests of established wealth and power? Who else funds it? Both ALO and the Propeller Fund were curated by artworld professionals and so provided yet more exposure for established artworld critical agendas that cultivate a diversity of expression but not of idealism or excellence.

    So if ALO continues, I do hope it will more closely resemble the Grand Rapids ArtPrize, no matter how “insidious” the results may appear to some.

    BTW – a similar conflict between the established artworld and others who want/love/need art may be found in the current controversy embroiling the Indianapolis Culture Path:

  9. Abraham Ritchie Says:

    I’m not sure how ArtPrize enabled artwork “that is too ambitious for street fairs” because the ArtPrize artwork had mostly all been the stuff of street fairs. Maybe the author meant ambitious as in bigger, the stuff of ArtPrize is usually big art fair type of art.

    ALO also transformed business people into gallerists–that became a problem as they ran into conflict with the artists.

    Whatever happens with ALO we definitely don’t need it ending up more like ArtPrize. Otherwise we’ll get this:

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