Lately I’ve taken issue with the title of “Artist.”

After spending the five years as an undergraduate fine art student I’ve come to constantly question the title I once held near and dear. These past few years have been great in terms of getting Grand Rapidians excited about art, but I have come to believe the manner in which many local event organizers, fundraisers, institutions and even artists have presented their work has created an increasingly restrictive image for how art functions as well as the role and value of artists for the community.

Like many of my peers I get giddy as a kid on Christmas morning at all the possibilities regarding what art could be in Grand Rapids. But too often I think we settle for the same shows – changing only the date, time, name, DJ and location. It is great to see people get excited about going to see art, buy art and put it up in their homes, but that single model of art as commodity everybody seems to be so goo-goo gah-gah over, I believe has hit many a dead ends. Because the conversations surrounding contemporary art originate from the previous century, much of the dialogue has gotten too comfortable within the business of buying/selling art, making things redundant.

In recent years, I’ve found myself going to exhibitions with high expectations, anticipating being blown away by new images and ideas, but instead am left with a longing for more. I think that because its so easy to jump on the Richard Florida bandwagon when persuading the business community to throw artists a bone, Grand Rapids has begun to perpetuate a system where artists and curators are hesitant to veer away from their bread n’ butter. I understand artists have bills to pay and institutions have money to raise, I just wish more experimentation was happening where creative practices within visual art crossed into spaces outside of the white cube while appropriating other disciplines.

In my opinion, the most interesting projects are not happening in the galleries but in more public arenas. Since the beginnings of postmodernism more than fifty years ago, much of the technology and know how required to create and present culture to the world has become so much more accessible thanks to user resources like Photoshop, Bandcamp, Etsy, Facebook, and, Youtube. Incorporating these resources projects like the Kickstarter, Sunday Soup, Barefoot Victory Gardens, Bartertown, GR Creative Youth Center, and Until Love is Equal are not only effectively using methods commonly used within an art practice but also applying them to everyday life providing creative alternatives for a wide audience to engage.

Submitted by: Mike Wolf

17 Responses to “Lately I’ve taken issue with the title of “Artist.””
  1. Kevin Buist says:

    I totally agree that art practice locally needs to find more ways to work outside of the white cube, make-a-thing-and-sell-it model. There simply aren’t enough forward-thinking collectors here to drive much interesting activity (and even in places with more collectors, the best stuff usually happens on the periphery anyway). But what exactly do you mean by the Richard Florida bandwagon?

    • Mike Wolf says:

      when referencing Florida, I’m thinking about how many are beginning to acknowledge the fact that a strong arts community is good for the economy, but how to these workers are going to get paid isn’t addressed. It doesn’t make sense to say art and artists are economic powerhouses (like Florida) while many in the field are struggling to pay the bills.

      I don’t claim to have any answers, but I am very interested in how artists can become part of the discussion and process to make the situation better rather then having them stand on the side while an exclusive group of non-artists like Florida work in some trendy office.

      Like Joseph Beuys said years ago and new technologies are showing us each day, anyone and everyone is now “an artist.” So in this huge shift of cultural production a city cannot simply rely on the fact a new group of bohemians, lgbt, artists, engineers, hipsters, and ethnic minorities are going to move in and lead us to the promise land.

  2. Lorraine says:

    Agree, and it’s easy to get complacent, even if you’re an artist!

  3. Busch Lite says:

    This is a valued argument at time when artistic opportunities are starting to really open up in Grand Rapids. Everything could very well end up as a dead end like you say unless art makers, funding institutions and collectors steer their art cars into the unknowns of creativity to increase its value to the community. Changing the minds of bible belt collectors and the fact that Amway and other conservative businesses fund everything will be tough. BUT… even with the funding do Grand Rapid’s artists have it in themselves to push the boundaries of the global art world??? Can we make work to impress Mike Wolfe in our tiny city? Innovators in any subject are not always easy to come by.

  4. PN says:

    As a consumer I wish someone would push “art” into channels that let me consume without buying objects. Push it to my phone. Alert me to the happenings. Spontaneously modify my clothes.

    Maybe I’ll pay less money more often if y’all can improve the quality of my life and provide a real counter-point to the drab dominant culture.

  5. M P says:

    Mike, I always just tell people I am a house painter…it just makes it simple, concise and there is less baggage.

  6. Julie Stivers says:

    I don’t know where your five years as an undergrad were spent, but Paul Wittenbraker at GVSU has been asking the questions outlined in your comments for the past couple of decades.
    I don’t think he’s found any answers, but it’s been an interesting process to watch.

    • Mike Wolf says:

      hi Julie, I actually participated in two Civic Studio projects (Wealthy St. & Interurban Bridge) while I studied at GVSU with an emphasis in Visual Studies.

      The experience of being involved with Civic Studio and working with Paul had a huge influence on my undergrad education and current interests. The more I think, read, write, and create from these questions, I always come out with more questions and greater interest in continuing to engage with the ideas.

  7. Hugo Claudin says:

    it’s easy to pooh pooh ideas and events in grand rapids. I have held hundred of shows at my loft and have had mixed results. Often I have brought musicians from as far away as japan and germany only to have five or six people show up. These poor frightened souls that do venture often look around the room and count the other people in the room… after looking at their cell phones a few dozen times to make sure they are in the right place they leave because not enough scenesters are there they leave before realizing they just a left a show that might be playing at the berlin jazz festival the next week.. that to me is sad. you get what you put in. if you are looking for flashy lights or a synchronized projection you are at the wrong place. good music takes a long time to make and our culture wants action fast. the same goes for painting and sculpture. if you come to my place you will see the same paintings over and over because i am still working on many of them and they are part of a large series. the complaints listed here sound more of an attention deficit kind.. what is keeping your from making the magic you claim is missing?

    • Mike Wolf says:

      While I have not run as many shows on my own as yourself I have enough experience to understand the troubles with getting people to show up, engage and really invest in whats going on. But I think that the solutions to those issues don’t necessarily translate over to making a painting.

      In my opinion, the language of contemporary art has become too layered and specialized for people outside of that practice to fully understand, experience, & enjoy. An event like ArtPrize is a perfect example of that problem, but what most all local artists have done about it is bitch n’ moan at a bar with their other artists friends not really putting anything into action to make productive cultural changes. If artists want people to get invested in that culture how do we expect them to do that when the arts community just braces themselves while it rolls through..? I agree with the commonly used statement that “art” shows the audience alternative ways of looking at the world, but what I myself as an “artist” and the public seem to really get behind are projects that provide alternative ways of being in the world.

      Additionally like all artists or cultural workers I’m held back by having to work 40+ hrs/wk at an unrelated job to pay the bills and other obligations in my life to make “magic”. But in the free time I have I am on the:
      -Ave. for the Arts Advisory Committee

      – the DAAC Board

      – work to provide alternative forms of arts & culture funding through S.E.A.S. ( to help make the purse larger for Sunday Soup GR.

      – continue to work collaboratively with a GVSU student organization to get bottled water sale out of Campus Dining (

      – working on getting a podcast/blog rolling for local DIY projects. We’ll be proposing this Sunday at Sunday Soup GR if you like to come by.

  8. artrations says:

    The tone of this is surprising considering that Grand Rapids “artists” were/are at the nexus of two important art ideas: Art Prize, and Sunday Soup/ InCubate. I know that Civic Studio was an influence at least for InCubate. I am still surprised when I read that InCubates’ founders are getting attention at “art” shows. But beyond the regional I personally know many artists whose project it is to expand the realm of art everyday or art of the the everyday. Leaving me to question what is your point? Grand Rapids art scene is lame? From what I can see here there is an invested community. Maybe you just need to meet other like minds.

    • schroeky says:

      Mike probably is saying the art here is boring and NO ONE can blame him. It is boring but it still brings people together and into Grand Rapid’s growing small businesses. It is sad the internet brings all the better things right into our homes. OUr local heroes aren’t as cool.

      • Kevin Buist says:

        @schroeky That’s really bleak, but I think you’re on to something. It goes along with Mike’s discomfort with the label of artist. I feel something nagging at me about that term as well. It’s worth exploring why, and I think all the stuff that competes for our attention is certainly part of it. Artists aren’t just up against vapid, empty junk, there’s a bunch of other really good stuff out there. People are either going to come to your opening or stay home to watch Mad Men. If we believe that people should get out of their houses and experience something else, we’ll need to make a more compelling argument than putting a few nice pictures on a wall.

      • Mike Wolf says:

        Im not necessarily saying the art is boring, I just get more enjoyment from formal qualities and beauty as objects themselves rather than the content which I’m more interested in. Additional criticisms are in the fact that many artists get too comfortable in their bread n’ butter mediums because it works for them, and why rock the boat while the seas are calm..?

        Why separate the conversations about production in lectures/round tables/symposiums/conferences from spaces where art is exhibited/presented? Why separate creativity within the arts from the creativity from the rest of the world? Rather than rely on people to seek out art, why not go to the audience presenting ideas in recognizable forms used in everyday life?

    • Mike Wolf says:

      My point is that I think local Grand Rapids artists can do better. A LOT better. I believe that there is too much focus on having artists get paid by only by making and selling work, when they have so much more to offer to spaces and places outside of a gallery/museum.

      As I responded to Hugo, I believe that the language of contemporary art has become too layered in specialized lingo to really engage a wider audience outside the regular art goers, makers, etc. Grand Rapids has a significantly younger history with art than say Chicago, Berlin, Minneapolis, New York, etc. and as a community it would be disingenuous to just copy those models that are specific to individual histories, location, and people. Rather than creating a culture that gets the public involved through consumption, I would like to see the arts community provide solutions to create spaces in order to produce a creative community unique to Grand Rapids where there are multiple points of entry for people of any socio-economic status to get involved in discussion and be engaged in the ideas within creative practice.

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