Article by Mary Beth Breckenridge
I don’t always get art.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been left out of the intellectual inner circle, like I lack the discernment required to understand the meaning behind paint splashes or free-form sculptures.
So imagine my surprise to discover that the Akron Art Prize is intended even for people like me.
The annual competition is built on the notion that art is for everyone. Anyone can enter, and anyone 16 and older can vote to choose the winners.
It’s a sort of people’s choice award for area artists.
The competition, going on through Oct. 4, counters the notion that art is elitist, said Michael Owen, whose Akron Glass Works is one of the five downtown sites that are displaying the nearly 160 entries. “At the core, it’s what you like,” he told me when I visited his gallery to check out the entries on display there.
The Akron Art Prize works like this: Artists submit their work and a $25 entry fee, and all the pieces that meet the submission guidelines are displayed for about a month at a handful of downtown galleries. Visitors can view the artwork during scheduled times and vote for their favorites, but only once per artist.
The winner receives $5,000 and the honor of having the work displayed for a week at the Akron Art Museum. Five runners-up get $1,000 each.
The first two years of the competition, voting was done by text message. This year, the organizers switched to a smartphone app to enhance the experience and simplify the voting process.
You can download the app for free from the iTunes or Google Play stores before you head out to the galleries. The app contains photos of all the pieces in the competition, descriptions of the works and sometimes contact information for the artists, such as websites or email addresses.
As you’re browsing the galleries, you can click on a “save” button to flag the pieces you like, making it easy to review your favorites before voting.
You can download and view the app anywhere, but you can vote only downtown. That encourages people to visit the galleries and see the art instead of just pictures of it, and it eliminates ballot stuffing through social media.
You don’t need to have a smart phone to vote, however. In fact, you don’t even have to know how to use a computer. Stations are set up at all the galleries, with iPads available for voting and staff members to help you use them, if you need it.
Cast five votes and take a short survey, and you unlock the chance to vote a sixth time. You’re also entered into a drawing for a Downtown Arts District prize package worth $1,000.
When I visited a few of the galleries earlier this week and gave the app a test drive, I generally liked it but found it to be a little buggy. It didn’t save all my choices on my first go-round. And it didn’t seem to stop me from voting a seventh time, although I don’t know whether that extra vote was counted.
The competition’s organizers, however, assured me some early glitches in the app have since been straightened out, so users should have a smooth experience.
Despite those little hiccups, I liked being able to view photos of the artwork I’d seen and reread the descriptions that were posted in the galleries. I also appreciated the luxury of having time to review my favorites before settling on my top choices, instead of having to decide on the spot.
But it wasn’t the app that impressed me most. It was the art.
The entries represented a surprising range and an impressive level of artistry, at least to my untrained eye. I could appreciate the way fiber artist Klair Heestand used gridwork in the mausoleums at Glendale Cemetery to inspire the detailing of the gown she created. I could marvel at the thoughtful details Jose Sacaridiz incorporated into a mixed-media work inspired by his father’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War and later passage to America. I could smile at Bradley Brownfield’s sculpture using Lego blocks and tea infusers, and ogle the jewelry made by Jennifer Baskin from sterling silver and watery blue stones called larimar.
And I didn’t have to know a thing about art.
That’s what the Akron Art Prize experience is all about, said Rob Lehr, gallery director at Summit Artspace, where 44 of the pieces are displayed. “It’s just great that there is something democratic,” he said.
The entries represent “a lot of variation, a lot of different skill levels” in both concept and craftsmanship, said Michael Martell, whose 43 Furnace Art Complex is displaying a total of 64 pieces in two galleries, one attached to Zeber-Martell Gallery & Clay Studio and the other upstairs in Artwalls at 43 Furnace.
Martell said artists are expected to be present at all the Akron Art Prize galleries, at least part of the time they’re open to visitors. That gives visitors a chance to connect with the artists and better understand their processes and vision, he said, which tends to make the viewers appreciate the work more.
The goal, he said, is making art more accessible.
“We wanted to do this just to extend art to the community,” he said, “to expand the perspective of what art is.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MBBreckABJ, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.