Calvin alumni and former professor enter ArtPrize amid big changes


Photo courtesy of Alison Wabeke

Alison Wabeke has entered all but two ArtPrize competitions.

After last year’s cancellation due to COVID, ArtPrize has returned. Calvin alumni Alexandra Bos and Alison Wabeke and former professor Robin Jensen entered the competition amid changes and challenges facing the Grand Rapids staple. 

ArtPrize began Sept. 16 and will run until Oct. 3. In past years, the organization has given away $500,000 in prize money. This year, it will award about $250,000 in 500 prizes, opting to invest extra money in grants for public art projects around the city. 

ArtPrize has also replaced the simple popular vote system with an interactive QR code voting system. Pedestrians simply scan QR codes on signs around town and are given the opportunity to award prize money — $500 as advertised on ArtPrize’s official trailer — to the artist of their choice. 

ArtPrize artist and 2011 Calvin graduate Alison Wabeke notes that the changes have had mixed reception among artists. 

“A lot of artists are really upset about the changes and a lot are happy,” Wabeke said. 

Changes to prize money and voting aren’t the only new developments — this year’s competition has had to adapt to persistent COVID spread.

Almost half of the venues this year are outdoors and ArtPrize has created an outdoor-only walking route. But according to Wabeke, the organization has had a hands-off approach to COVID restrictions, leaving details of protocol up to the venues. 

Alexandra Bos, a 2013 graduate who’s entering ArtPrize for the first time, told Chimes some artists are afraid the competition will shut down before Oct. 3. “They’re anxious about being hopeful,” Bos said. “This past year we’ve had to hold things so loosely.” 

Artists told Chimes that much of the art has a thematic emphasis on hope and resilience as well as social critique. 

“There seems to be more art devoted to questions about society and the problems of today,” former professor Robin Jensen said. Jensen taught art at Calvin for 31 years and has been involved in all but two ArtPrizes. His own entry, “Winds of Hope…,” explores issues like COVID anxiety, violence against women and racism. 

For Bos, the pandemic has given time and space to conceptualize her piece, a meditation on identity called “The Gatsby Project.” She doesn’t think she would have gotten involved in ArtPrize otherwise. 

The title of Wabeke’s painting, “Strength for Today,” reflects themes of resilience. “It’s okay to not feel hopeful today,” Wabeke said. 

ArtPrize’s mission is to encourage critical discourse, celebrate artists, transform urban space and promote cultural understanding. 

Wabeke said she hopes this year’s competition will foster “a sense of togetherness and energy from our city.”